THE government is risking another run-in with lawyers after asking the Scottish Legal Aid Board (Slab) to draft new contracting proposals.
• Government asks SLAB to draft new proposals on legal aid contracting
• Lawyers’ group worried of cuts in funding and solicitors leaving legal aid altogether
• Goverment and SLAB in continued dispute over charges for legal aid work
The plans will decide which firms are able to take on legal aid cases – but lawyers fear they will amount to a cut and potentially freeze out some solicitors.
Mark Harrower, vice-president of the Edinburgh Bar Association, said: “Everything that Slab puts out these days is very concerning and frequently represents a cut for lawyers.
“I can’t think that this could mean anything other than that.
“Until I see anything to the contrary, I’m preparing for another cut. There are also bound to be people who don’t get contracts.”
The Law Society of Scotland has been in talks with the Scottish Government for several months on contracting, but no details have been set out. It does not believe the government’s anticipated savings are realistic.
Ian Moir, convener of the Law Society’s criminal legal aid negotiating team, said: “We expect to receive the detail on contracting proposals from the Scottish Government and Scottish Legal Aid Board in the coming weeks.
“Within the government white paper on legal aid, it is suggested contracting could save around £3 million. It is not clear to us how this amount could be saved through such a system.
“In England and Wales, the cost of administering legal aid after similar changes were made increased from around £58m to £100m in less than ten years. Any changes to the legal aid system must be underpinned by access to justice.”
At present, accused are represented by duty solicitors or a firm, and are free to choose who they want. Contracting could limit their choices.
In a statement, Slab said: “The Scottish Government has asked the board to develop proposals for the introduction of contracting as an approach to the purchasing of legally aided criminal casework services. The initial work on this has been pushed back due to additional workload from the Scottish Government’s Criminal Contributions Bill.
“We should be in a position to provide information on the range of options available to the Scottish Government in the coming weeks.
“It is for ministers to decide whether they wish any of the options to be further developed.
“We expect that this will be followed by a process of engagement and discussion.”
The government has been locking horns with lawyers for several weeks. Under the amended proposals, anyone with a disposable income of more than £82 a week would be expected to pay defence costs – raising fears people may plead guilty rather than pay.
Lawyers have held protests, including boycotts of custody courts, and the Edinburgh Bar Association is refusing to respond to calls at police stations.
But a government spokesman said: “Despite the challenge imposed through significant budget cuts from Westminster, the Scottish Government has been – and remains very firmly – committed to maintaining and improving access to justice.”