A leading Aberdeen solicitor has penned an open letter to the Scottish justice secretary warning underfunding has left the profession “on its knees”.
Stuart Murray, the president of the Aberdeen Bar Association, wrote to Humza Yousaf, the Scottish Government’s justice secretary, calling for the government to address the “profound lack of funding provided by the Scottish Legal Aid Board”.
Legal aid is available to help people who require the services of a solicitor but cannot afford one.
In his letter Mr Murray highlighted that criminal legal aid solicitors have not received a “substantial increase” in funding since 1999, leading to fewer graduates becoming solicitors and more experienced lawyers leaving the profession.
He said: “I write on behalf of the members of the Aberdeen Bar Association but in support of all criminal legal aid practitioners. I write to inform you of the impending demise of an entire profession.
“Throughout the current pandemic, we have watched with no small degree of respect, those others who have placed themselves at risk in order to allow society to continue to function. There are many who have done so but I refer in particular to doctors, nurses and teachers. They have worked tirelessly to ensure that public services continue to be provided in what are clearly, unprecedented times.
“Likewise, we as a profession, along with employees of the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, have ensured the smooth running of the justice system, throughout the pandemic.
“It is a truth that we take pride in supporting those members of society who need our services.
“It is with deep regret therefore that we as a profession find ourselves treated with utter contempt in the face of our ongoing efforts. Many of our number are now embarking on what may prove to be the first in a series of industrial actions. There is no doubt that others will follow suit, should your government fail to address the profound lack of funding provided by the Scottish Legal Aid Board.
“Whilst other professions have been provided with appropriate remuneration over the last 20 years, criminal legal aid solicitors have not received a substantial increase since 1999. As a direct result of continued underfunding by the Scottish Government, the profession is now on its knees. Fewer graduates are entering the profession and more experienced practitioners are leaving than ever before.
“It is often said that the cornerstone of Scottish justice is the right to a fair trial. Criminal defence solicitors play a crucial part in protecting that right. That is no doubt why we are designated as ‘key workers’ by your government. It appears however that we are not considered sufficiently ‘key’, to be provided with adequate financial support.
“I reach out in the hope that you and your government will heed this. I reach out in the hope that you and your government will provide a lifeline to the profession. I reach out on behalf of all individuals in society who require both our services and protection.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf will this week engage with the legal profession to discuss potential further support. Current financial restrictions mean the Scottish Government has not been able to agree a 50% increase in Legal Aid fees, but we are actively progressing a sustainable fee reform package that is beneficial for solicitors.
“Meanwhile an interim payment scheme is still in effect and provides a means to increase cash flow and build financial resilience. It has not been accessed by the majority of solicitors and we would strongly encourage them to use that. A scheme of advance payments has also been offered to the society, should that be useful.
“Other assistance available to solicitors during the pandemic has included furlough payments for staff and VAT deferrals.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Legal Aid Board said: “Solicitors, advocates and advisers have provided much valued services to those in need throughout the pandemic. It was crucial that we were able to support them in doing so.
“At the start of Covid we realised the difficulties reduced court activity would cause to businesses’ cash flow. Working with the Scottish Government, we introduced measures such as more accessible interim and advanced payment schemes so that solicitors can have quicker access to payments to assist with cash flow.
“Take up of these schemes has not been as high as we anticipated so we are we are engaging with firms to understand why this is and whether more can be done to help them access these cash flow measures should they need them.”