Scotland’s legal aid system is in “crisis” and an £11 million funding package from the Scottish Government “falls far short” of the investment that is needed, a leading lawyer has claimed.
Community safety minister Ash Regan said the cash being offered was equivalent to an 10.3% increase in solicitors’ fees for legal aid work.
A “significant extension” of a legal traineeship scheme for a further two years was also promised by the government, at a cost of an additional £1 million.
Ms Regan insisted the overall deal amounted to a “substantial and credible” offer, as she urged lawyers to accept it.
However Law Society of Scotland president Murray Etherington, said that a “generation of underfunding in legal aid has left a system in crisis”.
He added: “This failure to act has meant record numbers of solicitors are leaving criminal defence and areas of civil law, simply because it is unaffordable to do legal aid funded work.
“It means some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society risk going without the legal advice and services they need, all because the government has refused to invest the money required.”
Mr Etherington continued: “This latest announcement from the Scottish Government may recognise a serious problem to be solved.
“However, it falls far short of the investment we have argued for and which we believe is necessary to retain solicitors in the legal aid system to ensure access to justice for all.”
Defence lawyers have already boycotted some domestic abuse cases in Scottish courts as a result over the dispute over legal aid payments.
But Ms Regan said she wanted to see a “cessation of planned disruptive action” by the legal profession.
The new deal from the Scottish Government would mean fees have increased by 25.2% since 2019.
The community safety minister insisted: “This is a substantial and credible offer following extensive engagement with the sector and I’d urge lawyers to accept it.”
She said the Government’s aim was “to find a settlement that responds to the concerns raised by members of the profession and builds on the increases to fees already introduced over the past three years”
But she stressed the agreement had to be “affordable in the context of public finances”.
Ms Regan continued: “The offer has been made in the context of a very challenging financial position and that is why I must emphasise there is no scope for further immediate increases beyond this offer.
“Scotland has the finest legal aid system in the world and this credible and robust package will support vitally important criminal defence work as the justice sector continues its recovery from the Covid period.”