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Legal aid system comes under independent review

2 February 2017

An 11-strong panel is to undertake an independent review of the legal aid system in Scotland.

The legal aid system provides publicly funded legal advice and representation in court for those most in need. With legislation in Scotland dating back nearly 30 years, the review will explore how the system can best contribute to improving people's lives both now and in the future.

Chaired by Martyn Evans, chief executive of the Carnegie Trust, an organisation dedicated to improving wellbeing for those who are disadvantaged, the year-long project will tackle the challenge of exploring how best the legal aid system can contribute to improving the lives of those who need it.

The legal aid budget has been successively cut in recent years, and payments to lawyers have remained frozen for up to 25 years, and cut for some types of case. Many solicitors have decided that they cannot afford to undertake legal aid work.

Announcing the review in a statement to the Parliament, Legal Affairs Minister Annabelle Ewing said: “I am proud we have a legal aid system that enforces people’s rights and upholds social justice. Our guiding principle is to focus legal aid on those who need it most and we have maintained access to publicly funded legal aid in both civil and criminal cases.

“With legislation that dates back to the 1980s, change is needed and the time is right to conduct a comprehensive review of legal aid. This is about ensuring we have a flexible and progressive system that is sustainable and cost effective."

Prior to his present post Mr Evans was director of the Scottish Consumer Council from 1998-2008, chief executive of Citizens Advice Scotland from 1993-1998, and director of Shelter from 1987-1992. His advisory group includes:

  • Colin Lancaster, Chief Executive, Scottish Legal Aid Board
  • Professor Alan Paterson, an international legal aid expert
  • Janys Scott QC 
  • Brian McConnachie QC
  • Lindsey McPhie, criminal defence solicitor advocate
  • Jackie McRae, civil legal aid solicitor
  • Susan McPhee, Citizens Advice Scotland
  • DCC Iain Livingston, Police Scotland
  • Professor Fran Wasoff
  • Alison McInnes OBE, former Liberal Democrat MSP and justice spokesperson.

Access "crucial"

Welcoming the announcement, Eilidh Wiseman, President of the Law Society of Scotland, commented: “Access to justice for all is crucial to our collective social security and underpins the rule of law. It is vital that anyone, regardless of their financial means, can access the legal advice they need and have equal protection under the law.

"Yet these principles have come under increasing strain over recent years because of a legal aid system which is, all too often, not delivering for those who depend on it. This is why we very much welcome the details of this independent review. It provides a real opportunity to help shape the future provision of legal aid and ensure its long term sustainability.

"I am particularly delighted that both Lindsey McPhie and Jackie McRae, two of our members with extensive experience of working at the coal face on legal aid cases, will bring their in-depth knowledge, experience and understanding of civil and criminal legal aid work to the review."

The Society will shortly be publishing a report on the financial health of legal aid firms in Scotland, which Ms Wiseman said would in places "make uncomfortable reading which only serves to highlight the urgent need for the review announced today".

Foir the Faculty of Advocates, Gordon Jackson, QC, Dean of Faculty, added: “It’s right that the legal aid scheme should be examined to make sure need is being properly met, and the Faculty will play its part in the review. Ultimately, what matters most is the provision of proper and fair access to justice, which is fundamental to the rule of law in a free society, and legal aid is an essential element of that. Whatever changes may follow this review, that principle must not be undermined.”

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