Every citizen should be able to exercise their legal rights, regardless of financial situation or status in society. Access to justice is crucial to our collective sense of security within society and underpins not only the rule of law but also social justice. Each of us should have equal protection under the law.
Sadly, these principles have come under strain in recent years because of a legal aid system which is, all too often, not delivering for those who depend upon it. Whether facing unlawful eviction, resolving custody of children, or defending a criminal charge, we should all be able to access expert legal advice just as when we experience ill health we seek expert medical advice.
Despite evidence that early access to legal advice can prevent longer-term issues and shield other areas of the public purse, the current funding system leaves many of us concerned about its future. We fear that without adequate funding, increasing numbers of solicitors and legal firms will simply be unable to offer this essential service in communities across Scotland.
This is happening already in parts of Scotland, leading to higher costs for the public purse as solicitors from outside the local area are paid much more to carry out the same work local solicitors can no longer afford to undertake at the going rate.
An additional knock-on effect is that fewer newly qualified solicitors, and even fewer trainee solicitors, are gaining experience of legal aid cases, creating a further diminution in supply.
Broadening access to education and to the legal profession has been one of my priorities as President of the Law Society of Scotland.
I want the lawyers of tomorrow to see their future as helping our citizens access justice, regardless of personal wealth or social standing.
It would be a cruel irony if our efforts to broaden access to the legal profession helps to open doors to young people with the talent and drive to become solicitors, while at the same time our legal aid system prevents the profession being able to train and employ those who wish to use their talents for the benefit of those who need them most.
In 2015, we published a series of recommendations following consultation with our members which we believe can help create a legal aid system fit for the 21st century. This month we will publish new research on the financial health of legal aid firms in Scotland. Having seen some of the initial findings, I know our report will make for uncomfortable reading. It warns not of excessive profits in the sector, but of firms in difficulty and with few incentives to offer legal aid in communities.
It is clear change is needed and with ongoing reforms to modernise the wider court and justice system, there is an opportunity to rethink the system, examine where efficiencies can be made and explore how savings can be reinvested into the system.
We welcome last week’s announcement by Annabelle Ewing, Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs, that there is to be an independent review of legal aid. The review, headed by Carnegie Trust CEO Martyn Evans, will provide a real opportunity to help shape the future provision of legal aid and ensure its long-term sustainability. I’m delighted two of our members, Lindsey McPhie, solicitor advocate and immediate president of the Glasgow Bar Association, and Jackie McRae, a registered social worker, accredited specialist solicitor in family law and former member of the Society’s Council, will represent the profession on the review panel. Both have extensive experience of legal aid cases and will bring in-depth knowledge and understanding of civil and criminal legal aid work to the review.
We look forward to engaging constructively as the review moves forward and to working towards a legal aid system that fairly rewards solicitors for their work, encourages new solicitors to join this sector of the profession and, most importantly, ensures access to justice for all who need it.
• Eilidh Wiseman is president of the Law Society of Scotland