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Supporting legal aid

18 July 05

President's message: recent press support for legal aid lawyers provides a welcome background to the current Executive consultations; all should consider responding

by Caroline Flanagan


As I looked through my press cuttings last month I read an article that made me look out of the window to see if pigs were flying. The Sunday Express published an article under the heading “Vitally needed Aid for our hard pressed Legal Eagles”. Thinking that the title was perhaps tongue in cheek I read on. I was pleasantly surprised to discover an article encouraging the speeded up payment of fees to legal aid lawyers. Meanwhile, the English newspapers have carried reports warning of the imminent demise of legal aid there. Other thought-provoking articles appeared in the press following the publication of the Executive’s consultation paper “Advice for All: Publicly Funded Legal Assistance in Scotland – the way forward”.

The Society works hard to explain the fact that the majority of solicitors carrying out legal aid work do a very good job for limited pay – the opposite to many of the newspaper headlines. I am aware from reading Mr Peacock’s letter in last month’s Journal that some feel that the Society has not been successful in negotiating legal aid fees. In fact, the Legal Aid Committee has worked extremely hard over the years to obtain fair pay for work carried out. I believe that they have done as much as possible to try and obtain a fair pay. If they have not succeeded it is not through lack of effort. The Executive’s fees legal aid budget is constantly increasing. It must be understood however that changes to the law and procedures will inevitably have a knock-on effect and legal aid costs will increase. Proper funding in the criminal justice system must extend to defence lawyers as well as to the Crown.

Speaking of those who are underfunded, the end of May brought the twice yearly meeting of the Solicitors’ Benevolent Fund trustees. This fund is managed by trustees from both the Society and the Scottish Law Agents. Modest grants are made to those in dire financial straits. Only limited awards can be made as the Fund has no steady income source. I would encourage all of you to consider making donations to this very worthy cause.

The end of May was a busy time for me. I visited the mid-year conference of the International Bar Association in Lisbon. At these conferences I am reminded of the larger issues of which the Scottish profession is part. The conference discussed the role of the legal profession in upholding the rule of law. Increasingly, around the world – and on occasions rather close to home – the rule of law is being eroded. As lawyers in Scotland we are part of the wider community of international lawyers and we play a vital part in ensuring that the rule of law is maintained. The IBA has a programme in Iraq to train lawyers and judges in international human rights law. Scottish solicitors are involved in the programme. As Scots we punch well above our weight in this and other matters (I speak collectively rather than as an individual!).

And the independence of the legal profession brings us back again to the consultation paper on complaints handling. By the time this article is printed the Council’s response to this consultation will be in a fairly final form. If you have not already read Douglas Mill’s article in the June edition of the Journal then I recommend that you do so. It encapsulates the issues very clearly. I continue to encourage individual firms and faculties to put in responses. We are continuing to consult with the profession on this very important consultation but it is critical that as many of the profession as possible put in their own response. I recently hosted a meeting with representatives of some of the larger firms to consider the issues raised in the consultation and I am grateful to those firms for giving their time to discuss matters with us. At the end of June I attended a meeting with my English and other UK counterparts. Having heard the difficult issues that the English are grappling with as they try to separate regulation from representation, I can only hope that our own Executive has the patience to wait and see the outcome of the Clementi reforms in England before it considers replicating these across the border.

And the highlight of the last month? That was the faculty visit to Orkney. This small but pleasant island is well matched by its faculty, of whom a high percentage turned up for the meeting itself. I must thank in particular Alastair Bruce and David Fairnie who took time out of their busy days to look after the Society representatives. (Alcohol units 50 – but half over lunchtime so do not count.)

I look forward to the comparative peace of July and August and I wish you all well over the summer.