Aberdeen lawyers have hit out at the Scottish Government following a court ‘no show’ by defence agents yesterday.
No city defence solicitors were present to cover 18 custody hearings yesterday at Aberdeen Sheriff Court due to the ongoing row over pay.
Their protest meant that a number of cases were delayed until Wednesday, with some accused people having to spend two additional days in custody.
Legal aid is a Scottish Government scheme that funds solicitors for those defendants who can’t afford one.
Ian Woodward-Nutt, president of the Aberdeen Bar Association, said legal aid lawyers are working, in the vast majority of cases, at rates of pay which are lower than they were in 1999.
He said “urgent action” was needed to break the deadlock and warned that other work covered by defence solicitors could face “similar action” to what was seen at Aberdeen Sheriff Court.
Mr Woodward-Nutt said: “Members of Aberdeen Bar Association, like criminal lawyers nationwide, are no longer able to cover holiday custody courts.
“This difficult step is required to be taken because of decades of inaction by successive Scottish Governments.
“This has left most legal aid rates at around the same level that was fixed in 1999 and the effect of inflation means that many defence lawyers are being asked to work for remuneration rates that are below the minimum wage.
“In some instances, we are being expected to cover cases for no remuneration at all.
“To add insult to injury, whilst all of our partner in the criminal justice system – that is prosecution lawyers, police and court staff – will receive enhanced rates for working on their holidays, no such consideration is afforded to defence lawyers.”
— Stuart Murray (@StuartM60765925) December 31, 2021
Former Aberdeen Bar Association president and partner at Murray Ormiston LLP, Stuart Murray, announced via social media on Friday that association-affiliated lawyers would “withdraw from all court and police custody schemes”.
Mr Murray also called on other bar associations in Scotland to show their support and join the boycott.
Aberdeen agents took similar strike action in May, and ultimately opted to boycott all public holiday custody courts as of September last year.
Mr Woodward-Nutt added: “It should be clear to any impartial observer, that urgent action is required now.
“Failing that, over the months ahead, it will inevitably be the case that further areas of work, normally covered by criminal legal aid lawyers, will become the subject of similar action.
“Certain types of prosecutions involve both significant challenges and large amounts of preparation for defence lawyers.
“Given the astonishingly low fixed rates paid by legal aid it remains to be seen whether, as a profession, defence lawyers will be able to act in such cases.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We have acknowledged the important role of the legal sector throughout the pandemic.
“The Scottish Government has provided a 5% increase in legal aid fees in 2021, plus a commitment to a further 5% increase this 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.
“This amounts to a £20 million investment in legal aid since March 2021 in addition to a 3% uplift across all legal aid fees in 2019.
“We have committed to consider other issues raised by the profession, and liaise regularly with the sector. Our most recent meeting was on 22 December, with a commitment to meet again next week.”
On additional people being held in custody, a Police Scotland spokeswoman said: “We have sufficient capacity and as a national service Police Scotland can flex resources should there be a requirement to do so.”
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