Leaders: Legal aid reforms not fair on anyone

Picture: Neil Hanna
Picture: Neil Hanna
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WHEN the Law Society of Scotland, a conservative body not given to militant grandstanding, advises its members to stop doing something which motivated many to become a lawyer – representing the poor and the disadvantaged – that ought to be a signal that something has gone seriously wrong.

Lawyers, most people imagine, are extremely well-paid. Some certainly are, but many are not, including those who defend people charged with relatively minor offences and facing a sheriff court trial. Nobody would argue that it is reasonable for such lawyers to do their job but not be paid for it.

Equally, most people would also think that people who commit crimes should not be entitled to the luxury of society paying for the cost of their defence in court (which ignores the maxim that everyone is innocent until proven guilty).

Nevertheless, this view seems to be behind the Scottish Government’s proposals for further reform of legal aid. Unfortunately, it is bringing it into conflict with defence lawyers and whether they should be paid for doing something which is a cornerstone of the justice system – that everyone, no matter how poor, is entitled to proper legal representation.

The issue here is the legal aid bill, which cost taxpayers a record £161.4 million in 2010-11. Ministers, reasonably, want to stop it rising still further and, preferably, to bring it down. So they have decided that accused people who have a disposable income – money left over when housing, food and other necessities have been paid for – of more than £82 a week should pay towards the cost of having a lawyer to defend them when they face summary legal proceedings.

Lawyers will have to collect this money. And if they are unable to, what then? Anyone with any experience of criminal proceedings in the sheriff court will know that it is generally a sad parade of life’s inadequates, people who are unable to control their finances and whose chaotic lives bring them into conflict with the law. Most of them will not have the remotest idea if they have any disposable income, still less what that might be.

This has led the Law Society to tell lawyers that if they are unable to collect this contribution, they should either continue to defend their client free of charge, or withdraw and let the client defend themselves. The latter course is a lot more likely, which raises the prospect of chaos in the courts and a lot of people facing verdicts having tendered a hopelessly deficient defence.

This is unacceptable. The Scottish justice system depends on accused people having a fair trial with the fairness largely dependent on them having a competent defence. Rising numbers of unrepresented accused would speak of a legal system going backwards. The Scottish Government says it is talking to the Law Society. It needs not so much to talk, as to listen, learn and then act.

Every little bit can help save a life

MOST readers will now be worrying about whether they have everything ­organised – turkey, trimmings, etc – to provide themselves and family with a decent Christmas dinner. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that we ask you to reflect for a moment that there are millions of children for whom what you are planning is unimaginable luxury.

Providing, not that luxury, but simply basic sustenance for hundreds of thousands of starving children is what the charity Mary’s Meals is all about. The story of how it began is inspiring – two brothers in Argyll who ran a local appeal for blankets and supplies for the dispossessed of the 1992 Balkans conflict and used their jeep to deliver what they collected.

Spurred by continuing generosity and from what they learned of poverty and conflict, they founded a charity with a simple but ingenious goal. To ­alleviate hunger and to promote self-generating routes out of poverty, they learned that providing school meals is a great way to ­encourage children to attend school and, whilst being fed, to learn the means to a better life.

The charity now provides hundreds of thousands of children with school meals and The Scotsman and our sister paper Scotland on Sunday are proud to support it this Christmas. Please spare a moment to read the ­account we publish today of the difference this charity can make.

And having read that, please ­reflect on what the charity’s founder, Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, says – that no donation is too small to make a difference. If you can made a big donation, that’s terrific. But a small one can save a child’s life too, and there is nothing more valuable than that.