A SENIOR lawyer has warned that a lack of money in the legal aid budget risks bringing the system to a crashing halt.
Ian Moir, convener of the Law Society of Scotland’s criminal legal aid committee, spoke out after The Herald revealed that a wave of solicitors had pulled out of the police station duty rota.
Mr Moir said it simply was not worth many solicitors time to undertake such work, providing advice to suspects, because of the low rate of remuneration.
He also believes that changes coming in on January 25, which give suspects questioned in a police station the right to legal advice regardless of the severity of the offence or whether they have even been charged, risk pushing the system to breaking point.
Mr Moir said: “I think it’s important to get across that we try and make the system work.
“We do everything we can and our role is very difficult and demanding.
“We deal with people at their worst, who have been taken into custody and may be addicted to drugs or under the influence of drugs.
“But, after so many years with a lack of increases in funding, it has got to the point where people are no longer willing to do that system of 24/7 work.”
The lawyer said that people joining his profession were put off doing low-paid legal aid work, leading to a looming recruitment crisis.
He added: “It’s now reached the point where most people doing criminal legal aid work are in their 50s and 60s.
“Where is the younger generation coming through?”
The Herald reported earlier this week that the Scottish Legal Aid Board (Slab), which runs the police station duty scheme, is facing the prospect of having to increase its own team of lawyers to cover the work. This could lead to a significant increase in the overall cost to the public purse via the legal aid fund.
A spokesman for Slab said: “It has been recognised from the outset that more money was required to make the new police station arrangements work.
“That’s why the regulations passed by the Scottish Parliament on December 20 were designed to increase the amount spent on police station provision from £500,000 to an estimated £3.2 million annually.
“The additional cost flows from significantly higher fees, extra demand for advice, and an easier application and accounts process encouraging a substantial increase in claims for payment.”
The spokesman insisted that Slab was doing its best to explain the changes to solicitors, and was trying to make the system easier for everyone.
“If solicitors in particular areas choose not to do police station work and so don’t claim the funding available that money will be used to meet the cost of alternative means of providing advice in those areas, such as employed solicitors or other arrangements to make advice available,” he said.
“The biggest change after January 25 will be in the number of people seeking advice, most of whom will get it from their own solicitor or our Solicitor Contact Line (SCL).
“The duty scheme itself will remain largely unchanged but will differ in that solicitors will no longer have to be on the duty rota to give advice to their own clients.”
He added: “The other change is that the police will contact a solicitor directly when that specific solicitor has been requested by someone held at a police station, rather than having to ask the SCL to do it.
“This will make it quicker for people to get access to advice from their own solicitor.”
Source : HeraldScotland