The Scottish Legal Aid Board (Slab) spent more than 150?million last year on financing legal aid cases in the courts but has now been instructed by the justice minister, Kenny MacAskill, to cut costs by up to a third.
A meeting of the Edinburgh Bar Association this month heard claims members would go out of business if such severe cuts were imposed. They have been warned the alternative will be to pump more money into the government's Public Defence Solicitor's Office (PDSO) to allow a network of state-paid lawyers to take more work. Some parts of Scotland are not at present covered by the PDSO, leaving the way open for private firms.
The Slab report published last week underlined the huge costs of providing legal aid. It showed that 11 firms made more than 1 million from the legal aid fund, and top earner, Livingstone Brown, in Glasgow, smashed through the 2m barrier. Donald Findlay remained Scotland's top QC with legal aid income of 300,000. The 11 highest earners at the criminal bar all exceeded 200,000.
One Fife-based criminal lawyer said: "There's no choice but to try to cut the bill in the current climate, but how we achieve a 48m cut no-one seems to know.
"At the moment, we are being presented with a choice. We're told one way is to expand the PDSO by recruiting more salaried solicitors and opening offices in areas not presently covered - Kirkcaldy or Dunfermline for Fife and Oban for the far west have been mentioned. A feasibility study is under way into the costs of that. In the meantime, pressure is being put on the Law Society to persuade us to accept a cut in fees. We don't want to accept it, but if we don't the proposed expansion of the PDSO will go ahead."
One of Scotland's most experienced criminal solicitors said: "Slab's own research shows the average cost of a case handled by the PDSO is higher than the average for private firms.
"It also shows a significantly lower satisfaction rating of PDSO clients with their representation. So, if it's more expensive and not as good, why are Slab intent on putting more public money into extending the service and, as a result, almost certainly forcing some private firms out of work?
"You have to wonder whether this is part of a trend we have seen in recent years of Slab being hostile to private firms while trying to develop its own fiefdom."
Senior sources at the board dismissed the comments as "utter nonsense," pointing out the research referred to was carried out in the first months after the PDSO's controversial introduction nine years ago.
One board source said: "We had one office in Edinburgh. Anyone accused of a crime in Edinburgh and whose birthday fell within two months of the year chosen for the pilot period had no choice but to accept representation from the PDSO. Obviously, there was some resentment among the one-sixth of accused who lost the right to choose their own lawyer, and at the outset costs were higher, but this research is now badly out of date and it is very misleading to try to apply it to the present.
"The government has encouraged the PDSO to be rolled out around Scotland, and would be happy to see it extend further. Would that be the case if it didn't offer good value for money?
"Client satisfaction also stands up very well in comparisons with private firms. People who have used the PDSO refer to the salaried solicitor representing them as ‘my solicitor' just as happily as anyone else, and in areas where they have the choice, people return to the PDSO as readily as they return to any private firm."
Further meetings between the board, the Law Society of Scotland and the Scottish Government will take place before decisions are made. Nigel Beaumont - a solicitor with a busy practice in Edinburgh that has attracted high-profile clients such as Luke Mitchell, the Midlothian teenager who murdered 14-year-old Jodi Jones in 2003 - believes the changes could spell disaster.
He said: "I know not many people are going to shed tears at the prospect of lawyers losing their income, or even their jobs, but people have to understand just how much of an assault this is on their civil liberties.
"If you have a private solicitor and you're not happy with your representation, you have the same choice as any other consumer and can take your business elsewhere. But if private firms are forced out of business, you'll be deprived of that choice. It's archaic thinking."
Labour's justice spokesman, Richard Baker, said: "I am a great advocate for PDSOs as they offer a high level of service but Scotland has a mixed model that relies on both PDSOs and legally-aided private client practitioners. Our criminal justice system is approaching a crisis and with MacAskill at the helm I worry about its long-term future."