Legal aid system overhaul needed says Law Society

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Image caption The Scottish Legal Aid Board provides funding for people to get legal advice and representation

A call for "root and branch change" to the legal aid system has been made by the Law Society of Scotland.

The body has published a discussion paper to generate debate on how to improve publicly-funded legal services.

It said the current system was no longer fit for purpose.

The Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) said any changes should be made alongside wider reforms of the justice system so as not to jeopardise access to justice for those who need it.

Last year, the Scottish Parliament passed new legislation which means some accused people have to pay towards their defence costs, with lawyers responsible for collecting the money.

The Law Society said the legal aid system has not kept pace with reforms to the wider justice system.

The discussion paper has suggested a number of possible change - although it conceded not all of them will attract "universal support from the profession".

Early resolution

It suggested reducing the eligibility levels for civil legal aid "to ensure that public funds are focused on those most in need", along with introducing "affordable legal assistance loans", which would be provided through the SLAB to help people with legal expenses.

The Law Society suggested that savings made should be reinvested into the legal aid system, while the block fee system for criminal legal aid should be streamlined.

It also proposed that changes to the system should be used to encourage the early resolution of cases.

The paper also said the "legal aid landscape has changed substantially" since being established in 1986 with the Legal Aid (Scotland) Act.

"The existing system lacks clarity, is inefficient and is administratively burdensome. It leads to unnecessary time and resources being spent by SLAB and solicitors at every stage of the process," it said.

Alistair Morris, president of the Law Society of Scotland, said: "The current legal aid system is almost 30 years old. In that time there has been extensive change which has resulted in a system that is hugely complex, with even highly-experienced solicitors reporting that they find it difficult to navigate.

"We don't believe that the current system is fit for purpose and, with the ongoing reforms to modernise the wider court and justice system, the time is right for root and branch change.

"We need to rethink legal aid as a whole and look at where efficiencies can be made and how savings can be reinvested to ensure that people can obtain legal advice when they need it most, regardless of their status or wealth."

'Efficiency savings'

Ian Moir, convener of the Law Society's criminal legal aid committee, said: "We are becoming increasingly concerned about the real term decline in expenditure on legal assistance which has been ongoing for years.

"We believe that re-investment of efficiency savings into legal assistance can deliver savings to the justice budget, to public services, the wider economy, and add value to both clients and communities."

The Law Society published the discussion paper days after SLAB chairman Iain Robertson warned savings would need to be made to the legal aid bill - which was just over £150m in 2013-14.

Responding to the paper, a SLAB spokesman said: "As we said at the publication of our annual report last week, there is scope for simplifying and reforming aspects of legal aid.

"However, changes to legal aid must be made in the context of the wider reforms of the justice system and should not jeopardise access to justice for those who need it.

"With the Scottish government, we will engage with the Law Society of Scotland, the Faculty of Advocates, other justice partners and the advice sector to look at delivering savings and maintaining access to justice for those that can't afford it."

James Wolff QC, the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, said meaningful access to justice depended on the availability of "effective and skilled legal assistance".

He added: "We should be proud of the way that Scotland's publicly funded legal aid system has helped to secure access to justice for people with legal problems of every sort, and any reform of the system should seek to improve access to justice for all who need it."

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