Lawyers in Scotland’s courts are lodging “not guilty” pleas against the will of their clients in order to make more money, according to a report by Scotland’s public spending watchdog.
The findings by Audit Scotland suggest lawyers are pressing their clients to “go to trial for the money” in the country’s log-jammed courts system. Legal aid chiefs have confirmed they are to investigate the duty solicitor system in courts and police stations as part of a wider review.
The revelations sparked outrage from opposition politicians. Scottish Greens justice spokesman John Finnie said accused people must get the “best possible legal advice”. He added: “Any suggestion to the contrary undermines our whole legal system.”
Scottish Conservative justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell said: “This is another worrying development in a criminal justice system which is creaking at the seams.”
The report was based on a series of focus groups with offenders in the justice system, as well as interviews with victims and witnesses. The report said: “It was suggested by some participants that this was a money-making ‘scam’ by solicitors, in order to earn additional fees by prolonging the process. Others noted that they had pleaded not guilty on the advice of their solicitors, and had regretted this, potentially losing the opportunity for a discounted sentence.” One participant added that “solicitors want you to go to trial for the money”.
The cost of later guilty pleas – after the first opportunity – is costing taxpayers about £23 million a year, according to Audit Scotland. There were more than 20,000 later pleas in Scotland’s sheriff courts last year.
A spokesman for the Scottish Legal Aid Board (Slab) said he did not believe the issues raised represented “a widespread approach” by solicitors.
But he added: “Ministers have asked Slab to look at the management and administration of the court and police station duty schemes. We will be looking at both fee structures and the required standards of service.”
Duty solicitors operate in sessions. If a client pleads guilty, they are paid £70. A not guilty plea attracts a fee of £63 for the first client. But if a not guilty plea results in a sheriff court summary case, lawyers are then entitled to a fee of £485. Even where clients plead guilty in court, the lawyer still gets paid £242.
Last year plans for lower legal aid fees for solicitors acting in appeals were rejected by Holyrood’s Justice Committee. The proposals had prompted threats of a widespread boycott of the new Sheriff Appeal Court.
Stephen Biggam, a member of the Law Society of Scotland’s criminal legal aid team, said: “We don’t believe the highlighted small study sample of a group of 32 offenders is an accurate representation.
“The solicitor’s primary duty is to ensure the individual makes the best decision at a very stressful time and the financial implications for them are not a factor in the decision-making process.”