Scots ‘will be charged hundreds’ to access justice

Computers added people to lawyers legal aid claims by accident. Picture: Ian RutherfordComputers added people to lawyers legal aid claims by accident. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Computers added people to lawyers legal aid claims by accident. Picture: Ian Rutherford
A COMPUTER glitch at a Scottish Government quango has revealed criminal suspects in Scotland will be hit with bills for hundreds of pounds after changes to legal aid come into force.

The “contributions” policy was due to be introduced this month, for those with a weekly disposable income of £82 or more, but was postponed following a lawyers’ revolt.

However, Scottish Legal Aid Board (Slab) computers added them to lawyers’ legal aid claims by accident.

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They were removed after the error was spotted, but have still provided an insight into the level of contributions people will be expected to make.

In one case, a retired miner aged between 65 and 70 and facing a charge of assault, was instructed to pay £500 despite having a weekly income of £222 from his state and work pensions.

Far from being a contribution to his fees, this sum could well have covered them in their entirety, lawyers say.

In another case, a 69-year-old woman, charged with being concerned in the supply of class-A drugs and living off the proceeds of crime, was ordered to pay £343 despite receiving only £141 a week through her state pension and pension credits.

Mark Harrower, president of the Edinburgh Bar Association, said: “Here are two vulnerable people, one of whom is paying all the costs – that’s what we said was going to happen.

“In cases like this, what are the chances of them paying? Or will they say, stuff it, I did it, even if they didn’t.

“I’m not surprised by the figures – this is what we expected despite the legal aid board’s assurances that only those who could afford to pay would do so.

“The people who will be hit hardest by this are those on low incomes, just above the benefits level but not earning very much. Higher earners would not be getting legal aid anyway.”

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Lawyers have also been concerned about their ability to collect these payments off clients.

A spokesman for the quango said: “Contributions for criminal legal aid have still to be introduced. We are currently developing the online applications system for use when they are introduced.

“We cannot comment on the scenarios shown to us by The Scotsman. It is important to note, however, that any calculation of a potential contribution for criminal legal aid is based on an ‘undue hardship’ test.”

The Scotsman revealed last month that the Scottish Government had postponed the introduction of contributions after lawyers threatened to drop clients who failed to pay in advance.

The government admitted a new date has not yet been set to intorduce the measures.

A spokeswoman said: “Following the changes to criminal work guidance recently announced by the Law Society, we have postponed the planned implementation of contributions.

“We are now reviewing the impact on access to justice of the revised Code.”