Solicitors in Aberdeen are refusing to work on public holidays in a row over pay with the “survival of many firms threatened”.
Criminal defence lawyers in the city have decided to take the action due to a lack of increases in legal aid payments, a Scottish Government scheme to fund solicitors for those who can’t afford one.
Aberdeen agents took similar strike action in May, but have now opted to boycott all public holiday custody courts going forward.
Ian Woodward-Nutt, president of the Aberdeen Bar Association, hit out at the Scottish Government over, claiming it “sits back and does nothing while witnessing the death throes of our legal aid system”.
‘Rates of pay which are lower than they were in 1999’
He said: “It is crucial to a civilised and fair society that those accused of crimes are properly represented in court by an independent lawyer.
“Many of those who the state chooses to prosecute cannot adequately represent themselves and lack the financial means to pay for a lawyer.
“Independent representation in these circumstances is paid for by legal aid. Legal aid lawyers are working, in the vast majority of cases, for rates of pay which are lower than they were in 1999.
“Factor in inflation, and the real reduction in legal aid rates approaches 50%.
“Years of reasonable attempts to have this situation remedied have been met with responses by the Scottish Government which amount to little more than token investment.
‘Aberdeen criminal lawyers have decided to boycott all future holiday custody courts until further notice’
“The government has known for many years that their investment in the defence is falling far behind their investment in the crown.”
Mr Woodward-Nutt said public holiday court sittings were introduced “without consultation” last year, and have taken place every holiday weekend since.
He went on: “Defence agents do not receive any enhanced payments for attending those courts. We are the only professionals in those courts who do not receive an enhanced payment.
“The strain on defence agents, both financially and from the perspective of their quality of life, is now such that the existence of a strong independent criminal bar and the survival of many firms is threatened.
“It’s against this background that Aberdeen criminal lawyers have decided to boycott all future holiday custody courts until further notice.
“It should be obvious to any impartial observer that it simply cannot be right to expect defence lawyers to work during their holidays without reasonable remuneration and without income parity with the other professionals required to work in those courts during holiday periods.
“One of the few truly unique pillars of Scottish society is the Scottish legal system, admired around the world. It is therefore ironic that it should be a Scottish nationalist government that sits back and does nothing while witnessing the death throes of our legal aid system.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We have acknowledged the important role of criminal defence solicitors. The Scottish Government has provided a 5% increase in legal aid fees in the current year, plus a commitment to a further 5% increase next year.
“In addition the Scottish Government has provided £9 million in additional funding to the profession in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as establishing a £1 million fund to support traineeships.
“We have committed to consider other issues raised by the profession, including with reference to public holidays. A package of specific funding has been developed in consultation with the profession to support the contribution of the legal profession during the forthcoming COP26 conference.”
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Legal Aid Board said: “All legal aid fees were increased in 2019 and again in March this year.
“Legal aid policy, including fee rates, is a matter for the Scottish Government.”
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