Unanimous vote calls for changes to civil legal aid
Solicitors at the society's annual general meeting (AGM) on Friday overwhelmingly supported a motion from the Family Law Association, calling for urgent changes to the block fee system. Caroline Flanagan, a family solicitor and partner with Ross & Connel in Dunfermline and a former president of the society, responded to the motion on behalf of the society's council.
She said it would now be up to the council to consider how to take the issue forward at its next meeting at the end of this month, and it is likely that one of the legal aid committees will be asked to look at it.
However, she adds, it will come as "no surprise" to the Executive that family lawyers had concerns about the block fee system. Flanagan told The Scotsman that any campaign for an increase in fees was unlikely to become as vociferous as last year's high-profile battle over criminal legal aid.
But she warned more family lawyers would simply stop doing legal aid work in favour of private clients - a choice not open to criminal lawyers.
She adds: "In certain types of cases, the block fees have paid less than the old fees would have paid. There is also increased administration, so it is a double whammy."
Changes to the block fee regulations were introduced in February, but Flanagan argues that these do not go far enough, and merely address issues flagged up at the outset.
"A lot of the things that are being improved are things they were told in 2003 were going to cause problems in the first place," she says. "Some of the things that have now been fixed were always known as going to be problems.
"We were told that, after the nine and a half years with no increase, there would be regular reviews - which I think we took to mean as every couple of years or so - and here we are three and a half years down the line. It [will be] no surprise to the Executive that the profession feels like this."
She adds that the profession now needs to provide "hard evidence" to the Executive that advice deserts are emerging as a result of the problem with rates of civil legal aid.
"There is already anecdotal evidence of advice deserts appearing in parts of Scotland with solicitors stopping civil legal aid work," she says. "We need the profession to provide hard evidence so we can present a strong case to the Executive.
"We need to be able to show where and why solicitors are not being paid sufficiently and the effect that this is having on the public's access to legal advice."
Helen Hughes, the chairwoman of the Family Law Association, welcomed the support from 150 lawyers at the AGM, and stressed the importance of a review of rates to prevent more Scots being unable to find a solicitor for civil legal aid work.
"I am delighted for the people of Scotland that the Law Society has today unanimously endorsed our motion", she says.
"The message it sends to the Executive is that, to ensure access to justice, they must immediately review the block payment system and put in place a system that pays solicitors a reasonable rate for the very important work they do to protect people's rights."
The Executive has acknowledged concerns regarding fees for civil legal aid, and a spokesman has confirmed that a review of fees and eligibility levels is being carried out.