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SLAB offers contracting discussions while holding back some papers

14 May 2013

Solicitors are to be invited to discussions over legal aid contracting with the Scottish Legal Aid Board, but some papers informing options for contracting will be withheld under freedom of information laws, the Board has said.

In correspondence and other documents now posted to the Glasgow Bar Association website, SLAB confirms that it has been asked by ministers to develop options to a change in the funding of criminal defence services. It believes that current arrangements do not encourage firms to maximise profitability, because there is a finite number of potential clientsand the number of competing firms makes it difficult for any to expand; and because it is relatively easy for solicitors to start their own firm, which leads firms to stay small or else to promote assistants to partner at an early age, thus eroding partner profits.

SLAB also says it has been concerned about the variable quality of service in some areas, and "Contracting offers one means of achieving a more flexible, robust and subject specific assurance as to quality."

Contracting is not yet imminent. SLAB gives an "absolute assurance" that it has not yet submitted any proposals to Government, that no decisions have yet been taken as to the shape of any scheme, and that the profession and others will have a "range of opportunities" to contribute to development. A page will shortly be added to its website to update on progress.

However the Board has concluded that some documents should be withheld from public circulation. It believes officials might feel inhibited from being as full and frank as possible in relation to options and impacts, and that policy formation would be less effective if carried out "in a goldfish bowl". It sees little value in solicitors "spending time analysing and responding to such options when many of them will require no response". Public interest considerations also come down in favour of non-disclosure.

Further information will, it says, be made available to help an exchange of views over the coming weeks. The writer, Colin Lancaster, SLAB's director of policy and development, concludes: "It should also be possible to share with you and other interested parties some of the emerging thinking on the possible options for contracting. I must stress that we consider it to be mutually beneficial for this process be transparent, but that enforced transparency is likely to be counterproductive."

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