An independent review of Scotland’s legal aid system has recommended some fees should be “adjusted” – although it added it was “impossible” to find evidence supporting an overall increase in the charges.
A total of 67 recommendations are made in the review, with the aim of making the system simpler, more user-focused and flexible, as well as sustainable and cost-effective.
The bill for criminal and civil legal aid assistance amounted to around £136 million in 2016-17, with spending in this area falling from £161m in 2010-11.
Scotland currently has the third-highest level of legal aid spending per person in Europe, although expenditure in this area is less than 0.5 per cent of the country’s overall public spending.
Carnegie UK Trust chief executive Martyn Evans, who chaired the review, said it set out a ten-year vision for the system.
On the fees issues, Mr Evans said he had not been able to find “persuasive evidence” there should be a general increase in all legal aid fees – saying this would “benefit some already very well-rewarded practitioners”.
However he argued the way fees are set “could be improved greatly”, calling for an evidence-based approach to be agreed between the Scottish Government, the Scottish Legal Aid Board, the Faculty of Advocates and the Law Society of Scotland.
Mr Evans said: “Fees for legal aid are a highly-contentious issue and I heard many views on the topic.
“It proved impossible to find robust sources of persuasive evidence for a general increase in fees.
“However, I conclude there may well be something in the case that some fees, in some circumstances and in some areas should be adjusted.”
The review also highlighted low morale amongst legal aid lawyers, with Mr Evans saying he was “struck” by the extent of both this and the lack of public recognition for the “valuable work undertaken by those who deliver legal aid-funded services”.
Focus groups carried out during the review revealed some people “thought that top-quality lawyers were more likely to work privately than choose to do legal aid work”, with Mr Evans highlighting “unfair and untrue” perceptions.
As well as calling for the development of a new fee setting system, the review said there should be increased investment in service improvement and innovation.