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Board accused of delaying criminal legal aid applications
A Highland solicitor yesterday accused the Scottish Legal Aid Board of causing delays in summary criminal cases because of the time taken to approve applications for assistance.
Neil Wilson of Inverness was speaking after six accused had their trials at Wick Sheriff Court adjourned because of delays with legal aid applications.
Mr Wilson blamed the amount of detail the Board was requiring with applications for legal aid, claiming a new regime introduced last year was very "user-unfriendly" and causing "false economies". He accused the Board of seeking to "grind down" applicants by making it increasingly difficult to get legal aid.
The Crown did not oppose the applications for adjournment, accepting Mr Wilson's view that legal aid appeared to be increasingly difficult to obtain, and Sheriff Andrew Berry observed that a lot of cases had had to be adjourned for that reason recently.
A Board spokesperson said that recent guidance had clarified that bank statements were requirted of all applicants except those on certain benefits but that this should reduce the number of documents required to be provided. Special procedures were available if legal aid had not been granted by the date of trial, and it should not be necessary to adjourn a trial because legal aid was not in place.
- Update as at 6 January 2011: The Board has issued a further statement having investigated the circumstances of the cases adjourned. That revealed that one application was granted on 15 December 2010 having been received – the decision to grant was notified to the solicitor and could be accessed through Legal Aid Online; two were refused in November 2010 because the applicant had too much income: one re-applied and was again refused, and the other also re-applied but without necessary information, which had not been supplied as at 5 January 2011; and two applications were continued in November 2010 for bank statements and personal information, which had not been sent to the Board as at 5 January. The statement added: "In these cases there has been no delay on the part of the Board. The Board does not consider a bank statement to be a level of detail which is unreasonable and indeed is the quickest way to verify an applicant’s financial circumstances. Sometimes there can be delays by solicitors and applicants in supplying the information required. However, this information is important to verify the applicant’s financial circumstances and that they are eligible to receive public funding through legal aid."