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Society opposes PDSO expansion as way to save legal aid costs
Duty rota changes and a cut in summary case fees are the way to achieve necessary savings in the legal aid budget, rather than a significant expansion of the Public Defence Solicitors Office, the Law Society of Scotland argued today.
The Society’s proposals, which were supported by yesterday's meeting of representatives of faculties and bar associations from across Scotland, were sent today to the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill.
Last November the Scottish Government announced an 8.2% cut to the legal aid budget as part of its public spending review. To achieve this it proposed an expansion to the PDSO which would have led to 40 extra solicitors (the PDSO currently has 16 in four offices) and a number of new PDSO offices being opened, with the PDSO taking a 60-75% share of the duty scheme rota.
The Society argues that a greater utilisation of the existing PDSO offices could deliver millions of pounds of savings and without opening new offices. Its proposals include an increase of the PDSO’s share of the duty scheme rota from 15 to 35% in and around those areas where the PDSO already operates.
It also accepts cutting the core fee in summary legal aid cases by 5.8%, from £515 to £485 per case.
This would still meet the £4.5m savings that had been associated with the significant expansion of the PDSO, and also allow for the protection of all the areas of legal work such as divorce and employment law, which are to be cut in the legal aid budget in England & Wales.
Oliver Adair, the Society’s Convener of Legal Aid, said it would "clearly be unacceptable" to open new PDSO offices and appointing more solicitors at a time when public funding was being cut and jobs were being lost in the public sector.
He added: “After consulting with the profession within very challenging timescales, we are accepting a 35% share of the duty rota to the PDSO in certain areas and a £30 reduction for each summary case paid to solicitors. This comes on top of a recent cut to the fee after summary justice reforms last year.
“This could save several million pounds from the criminal legal aid budget, including early savings for the next financial year, without the need to open new PDSO offices.
“The impact on solicitors will be still be hard-hitting. However the profession realise that it is not a question of whether savings will be made but how those savings will be made while ensuring that the work which solicitors do is paid for and clients still obtain access to quality legal advice and representation.”
The Scottish Legal Aid Board responded by welcoming the Society's "constructive approach". Lindsay Montgomery, the board's chief executive said:
“The Scottish Government’s spending plans for 2011-12 are challenging for everyone. The Board’s running costs have been cut by 8.5% (£1.1m) to £11.8m. This is in addition to a freeze on our running costs over the last three years which, in real terms, have been cut by 7%."
Referring to the cut in the overall legal aid budget, he added: "We have been working with the Law Society of Scotland and the Scottish Government to propose ways in which these substantial savings can be made in 2011-12. We welcome the constructive approach that the Law Society and local faculty representatives have adopted in dealing with the challenge facing public expenditure."