LAWYERS have launched the first salvo in their industrial dispute with the Scottish Government by boycotting custody cases at Edinburgh Sheriff Court.
The Edinburgh Bar Association refused to represent people arrested over the weekend appearing from the capital’s cells.
A handful of suspects chose to represent themselves, while others had to wait for one of two duty agents.
The disruption, which meant the court had to stay open for about two hours longer than usual, was minor compared to what could follow.
Faculties of lawyers in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Perth and Dumfries, among others, have voted in principle for industrial action.
Tomorrow, they will meet to decide whether to launch a nationwide strike, in what would be a first in Scotland. Lawyers are angry that people accused of crimes by the state must pay to defend themselves if they have a disposable income of £68 a week or more.
They also oppose the Scottish Government’s insistence that law firms, rather than the Scottish Legal Aid Board (Slab), collect the contribution.
Justice Secretary Kenny Mac-Askill has suggested he is willing to negotiate so that “the burden of collection might be eased”.
However, the Law Society of Scotland, which has been negotiating on behalf of the industry, said it shares the Edinburgh Bar Association’s frustration.
Oliver Adair, the society’s legal aid convener, said: “We share the concerns that our members have, and understand the huge strength of feeling amongst solicitors.
“We welcome the Cabinet secretary’s willingness to engage with us directly on the matter and look forward to meeting with him in early course.”
Normally, an accused person would have the choice of being represented by a duty agent or a solicitor of their choosing, and the duty lawyer would typically expect to see about ten cases a day at Edinburgh Sheriff Court.
Yesterday, one of the first custody cases to appear, shortly after noon, was among a handful who chose to appear without a lawyer.
“I’m representing myself,” the youth announced.
He added: “I would like to continue trial for two weeks without plea so me and my lawyer can deal with this together.”
The sheriff agreed and the case was continued for two weeks. However, not all the hearings were so simple.
Another man accused of breaching a curfew disputed being on one in the first place.
The prosecution insisted there was a curfew and opposed bail pending a trial to settle the argument.
Sheriff Derrick McIntyre said: “I’m not happy dealing with this while he’s not being represented.”
The case was continued for 24 hours and the man was remanded in custody. On another day, a trained lawyer may have argued for him to be bailed.
The Edinburgh Bar Association was the first to vote in principle for strike action, quickly followed by its Glasgow sister organisation. Since then, similar votes have been taken by defence solicitors in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Perth and Dumfries.
Lawyers yesterday gave letters to the accused and G4S, which delivers prisoners from custody to courts, explaining the reason for the disruption.
The EBA has warned some suspects could end up paying £500 towards their defence and will not be refunded if they are acquitted, contrary to the practice in England, under the Scottish Government proposals.
They predict many suspects will be unable or unwilling to pay, which will lead to lawyers losing money.