A fourfold increase in the number of solicitors withdrawing from providing cover in police stations has led to Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesman Liam McArthur calling on the government to take action on Scotland’s legal aid system.
Figures obtained by the Lib Dems reveal that so far this year 272 solicitors have withdrawn from the police station duty rota, which ensures advice can be provided to suspects.
This compares with 64 solicitors taking such action in 2017 and 69 withdrawing in 2016.
The data also shows there have been bulk withdrawals from the police station duty plans in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow and Livingston.
In Edinburgh 94 solicitors withdrew, compared with 16 departures in 2017.
In Aberdeen the figure for 2018 was 38, up from two in 2017.
Reasons for withdrawal can include a bar association taking a collective decision to withdraw, moving jobs or joining a different firm in the same area which does not undertake criminal work.
Mr McArthur said the current situation had left some people relying on telephone advice.
“The number of solicitors withdrawing from this legal aid programme has skyrocketed. The scale of the departures show that legal aid as it currently operates doesn’t work for those tasked to provide this critical service.
“The government knew the rules which came into force in January would lead to significantly increased workloads.
“There was cross-party support for giving everyone being questioned in a police station the right to legal advice. However, the failure to resource and prepare properly for this has led to many professionals having to opt out.
“Legal aid provision is becoming more fragile by the day. In some areas people have to rely on telephone advice. That’s not good enough in a 21st-century legal system.”
Currently, there are eight areas without local private duty solicitors on the police station plans: Aberdeen, Banff, Edinburgh, Falkirk, Jedburgh, Livingston, Peterhead and Selkirk.
In these areas, solicitors continue to act as court duty solicitors and are advising their own clients in police stations, but are not willing to act as duty solicitors to provide advice to people in police stations who do not have a solicitor, or whose own solicitor cannot provide advice.
In these cases, telephone advice is being provided by the SLAB (Scottish Legal Aid Board) 24/7 solicitor contact line providing advice to people in police stations.
Ian Moir, convener of the Law Society legal aid committee, said the matter was worrying.
“The level of remuneration available for legal aid is a significant concern for access to justice.
“The independent legal aid review, published in February, recommended a new review process for fees, with criminal legal aid fees as an initial priority area.
“The independent review further recommended the establishment of a process for this to be agreed by the end of 2018.
“We hope to see the Scottish Government’s formal response to the independent review shortly, including around how this recommendation can be taken forward.”
The Scottish Government said: “There is no evidence of any systemic lack of availability of legal advice for those who are being held in police stations and who wish it.
“Advice is provided by a combination of those solicitors who either participate in police station duty rotas or advise their own clients, the solicitors contact line and public defence solicitors who are employed by the Scottish Legal Aid Board. These arrangements are in place to ensure that legal advice is available for those who are being held in police stations.”