THE RIFT between the Scottish Government and defence lawyers over planned legal aid reforms has deepened, with a fourth day of protest action by solicitors hitting all sheriff courts.
For the first time in the dispute, bar associations across the country took part, saying they regretted the action but felt they had little alternative in the face of a “crisis” threatening their profession.
As had on previous Mondays, lawyers refused to appear for new clients in custody courts.
They are angry at proposals that would see people with disposable income of £68 or more making contributions to defence costs. The government also wants law firms to be responsible for collecting the contributions.
The action was condemned by the government, which said the protest was not an access to justice issue, but was being driven “to protect the best interests of criminal legal aid lawyers”.
A spokesman said: “Today’s action is wholly unnecessary and undermines our attempts to hold meaningful negotiations with the Law Society of Scotland, the representative body of the profession which supports the principle of introducing contributions to criminal legal aid. There is, and always has been, a clear willingness on the part of Scottish Government to listen and to engage with the profession.
“Throughout the development and passage of our bill, the Scottish Government have met the Law Society of Scotland regularly and officials are meeting again later this week. This action is premature while these talks are still ongoing.”
Cameron Tait, president of the Edinburgh Bar Association, which has taken the leading role in the protests, said: “This action has been taken by a profession that feels that the system of contributions in its current form will impede seriously access to justice for the working poor in Scotland and will represent another blow to solicitors practising criminal law. The profession is in crisis and the future of an independent criminal bar is in jeopardy.”
Last week, all criminal practitioners in Edinburgh resigned from the Scottish Legal Aid Board police station duty scheme, which relies on solicitors to be available to provide legal advice to an accused before and during police interviews. That move was said to demonstrate that concerns about the changes had been “flatly ignored” by the government.
The latest action involved bar associations in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee, Falkirk, Stirling, Alloa, Dunfermline, Kirkcaldy, Hamilton, Perth, the Borders, Paisley, Ayr, Stonehaven, Dumfries, Dumbarton, Kilmarnock, Airdrie, West Lothian, Haddington, Banff and Peterhead.
Officials said they were acting “with regret and sadness” but felt the profession had to express its opposition to the expansion of a system of contributions for legal aid.