SCOTTISH lawyers have welcomed a new report demanding a radical change to the legal aid system.
Westminster’s Justice Committee has today published the findings of an inquiry into the system which is used to fund legal services for those deemed unable to afford it.
In recent years, lawyers all over the country have raised concerns about the state of the system, the levels of pay allocated and what kind of cases qualify for aid.
MPs have said that efforts to reduce the cost of legal aid to the taxpayer have “hollowed out” the justice system, and puts its fairness at risk, as well as stopping some people from accessing it entirely.
They have said the system needs to be urgently reformed to ensure those most in need can access legal aid, and say it is currently creating a “barrier to justice”.
The report also highlights the problems for criminal legal firms struggling to retain and recruit new staff as they rely heavily on legal aid work.
Justice Committee Chairman Sir Bob Neill MP said: “In the last twenty years, efforts to reduce the cost of the legal aid bill have hollowed out key parts of the justice system. “Fixed fees are failing to cover the cost of complex cases, the number of people receiving legal aid is falling and legal aid firms are struggling to keep going.
“Careers specialising in legal aid are becoming less attractive and legal professionals are moving to the CPS or private practice instead.
“This puts the fairness of the justice system at risk. We have called on the Government to ensure that the legal aid system provides an adequate level of funding to ensure that quality legal advice is available at the earliest opportunity for those in need of it.”
He added: “The fee structure should reflect the complexity of work that is needed and support a healthy legal aid sector. The fixed fee system, which has been left unchanged for twenty years, should end and be replaced with a flexible structure that supports the legal work required on a case.
Ian Moir, co-convener of the Law Society of Scotland’s Criminal Legal Aid Committee said the report highlighted many of the concerns Scottish lawyers were also experiencing.
He explained: “While this report relates to the system south of the border, we are facing very similar problems in Scotland.
“We are seeing people leave legal aid firms in increasing numbers to work for the Crown Office, Scottish Government etc, where the pay and conditions are much more favourable and offer a better work/life balance.
“While the Scottish Government have listened to our concerns and taken some action in the form of increased fees, the Trainee Fund and the Resilience Fund, there is still a very long way to go to redress many years of under investment.
“If urgent steps are taken it may be possible to reverse the crisis but the situation is already critical.”