Boycott part of a plan to force the Scottish government to increase legal aid funding
Top solicitors taking part in an event in Edinburgh. Picture by Bill Heaney
By Bill Heaney
Kicking off a series of interventions highlighting how the Scottish Government has failed Scotland’s justice system, Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Liam McArthur has today revealed that in just three years over 100 solicitors and 40 firms have quit the Scottish Government’s legal aid duty scheme.
Figures obtained by Scottish Liberal Democrats via Freedom of Information revealed that the number of firms involved in the scheme fell from 392 to 352 and the number of private solicitors fell from 753 to 643 between 2019 and 2021.
Since then members of the Edinburgh Bar Association (EBA) have announced their withdrawal from all duty solicitor schemes at Edinburgh Sheriff Court, effective from January 31st 2022. Solicitors from Aberdeen and the Borders are also not participating in duty solicitor schemes.
The Scottish Solicitors’ Bar Association said the boycott is part of a plan to force the Scottish government to increase legal aid funding.
Speaking in the week that the Scottish Government set out its underwhelming New Vision for Justice, Mr McArthur, pictured right, said: “This steady decrease in the number of solicitors and firms available to provide legal representation is extremely concerning, especially for courts in the more remote parts of Scotland.
“Access to justice relies on access to solicitors so any changes in the vital legal aid schemes could cause serious court disruption and deny people representation. This is not the fault of firms and practitioners have warned for years that the current fee system is utterly unsustainable. It is the fault of the Scottish Government who have failed to properly resource criminal justice.
“The pandemic caused enough disruption and courts are facing significant backlogs. The Government must finally reform legal aid funding to prevent a further hemorrhage of solicitors from the scheme and ensure everyone has access to legal support.”
Prison remand soars as SNP fail to grips with court chaos
Meanwhile, in the latest in a series of interventions highlighting failures in the justice system, Liam McArthur has challenged Justice Secretary Keith Brown to “get a grip” as new research revealed that the number of people awaiting trial in prison has soared by almost 40% in the past three years.
Figures uncovered from the Scottish Prison Service by Scottish Liberal Democrats reveal that the total number of prisoners held on remand has soared from 1,523 in 2018-19 to 2,026 in 2021-22. For male adults it has risen from 1,317 to 1,836 prisoners, an increase of 39% over that time period.
Mr McArthur said: “The arrival of a new Justice Secretary should have been the moment to break away from the failures of past regimes and do better. He should be using his new position to drive down waits for trials but these figures show that increasing numbers are being held without a trial having taken place.
“These are people who haven’t been convicted, yet lengthy court delays are preventing them from having their cases heard and preventing victims from seeing justice done.
“The pandemic has obviously had an impact on the number of trials that can take place but now that society is opening up again it is time to tackle the huge backlog of cases clogging up our court system.
Barlinnie and Cornton Vale prisons in Scotland.
“Scottish prisons are grim, Victorian institutions. We know there is record overcrowding and spiralling rates of self-harm. Proper investment in bail supervision orders and electronic tagging could mean that remand is only used where it is necessary to safeguard communities and public safety.
“Scottish Liberal Democrats have set out common sense policies that will make our communities safer. That means driving down the use of remand and ensuring that both accused and victims get their day in court.”
The Scottish Liberal Democrat FOI can be found here. It includes the following remand population figures: