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SLAB reports static cost of legal aid in 2013-14

31 October 2014

Legal aid in Scotland cost the taxpayer £150.5m in 2013-14, a figure almost unchanged on the previous year, according to the Scottish Legal Aid Board's annual report published today.

Total spending in 2012-13 was £150.2m, down £7.4m on the year before. The marginal increase in the most recent year came despite grants of summary criminal legal assistance increasing by 8% to 86,191, and solemn criminal legal aid by 7% to 12,013. The number of applications for civil legal aid fell by 2.7% to 20,170, but grants of civil legal aid were broadly static at 13,409.

Net expenditure on civil legal assistance was £47.8m, down from £49.0m, and on criminal legal assistance fell from £94.8m to £94.0m. Children’s legal assistance (legal aid and ABWOR) was down from £5.4m to £4.9m.

In total, payments to solicitors increased by 1.7% from £115.1m to £117.1m; payments to advocates fell by 21% from £18.3m to £14.5m; and payments to solicitor advocates fell by 4.2% from £4.5m to £4.3m. Payments on outlays such as expert witnesses and court reports fell by 2.3% from £19.9m to £19.5m. Expenditure on the PDSO, including case related costs, increased by 2.3% at £2.0m.

The year also saw an increase in the expenditure to £5.5m on SLAB’s grant funding programmes, which are aimed at helping people to resolve problems connected with debt, housing and benefits. Funding for these programmes is provided by the Scottish Government and the Money Advice Service.

Savings of around £20m were made in the year as a result of efficiency measures introduced by the Scottish Government and SLAB. The report says that these savings were made without reducing the broad scope of legal aid in Scotland, but warns that with continuing pressure on public finances there will be a need to find further savings and efficiencies in legal aid expenditure.

Core administrative funding was reduced for the third consecutive year, following three years in which it was capped at the 2007-08 budget level, and despite increased responsibilities and duties being given to SLAB by Scottish ministers. Staff numbers fell by a further eight (45 since 2009-10), and to reduce running costs further, SLAB is relocating its main office to a publicly owned building, Thistle House in the Haymarket area of Edinburgh. 

SLAB chairman Iain Robertson commented: “This is by far the most challenging time for legal aid in Scotland since my appointment. The continuing pressure on public finances has led Scottish ministers to seek further savings and efficiencies in legal aid expenditure, and legal aid must play its part in achieving savings alongside all other public services.

“The need to find savings in legal aid expenditure means that businesses have to work with us to achieve efficiencies.

“Where legal aid reforms are required to deliver savings and also enhance the long term sustainability of legal aid then they must be considered, even if they are deemed radical or unpopular by business.”

Chief executive Dr Lindsay Montgomery added: “We continue to work with the Scottish Government to identify further savings proposals which would reduce legal aid expenditure but maintain access to justice. There is scope to simplify and reform aspects of legal aid which would reduce costs for solicitors and SLAB.

“We also believe that the success of the Scottish Government’s Making Justice Work programme and the reform programme being led by the Scottish Civil Justice Council to improve the efficiency of the Justice System in Scotland, both of which SLAB is heavily involved in, should help secure cost reductions for legal aid in the future.

“How the Scottish Government, SLAB, other justice sector partners, the legal profession and the advice sector respond in this crucial period is likely to determine the future shape of legal aid delivery and scope in Scotland.”

Click here to view the full report. 

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