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The Law Society's Access to Justice Committee has called for a radical reform of legal aid regulation and provison as part of a policy proposal which also calls for the abolition of the maligned Public Defenders Solicitors Offices.
The paper also calls for the provision of a new strategic body to provide "universal access of justice in Scotland". The paper identifies cost savings in the current system of legal aid and for existing Legal Aid Board resources to be taken into community ownership,
"Our approach would enable the £1.6m per annum used to fund the largely ineffective, unnecessary and inefficient Public Defence Solicitors’ Office (PDSO) to secure budgetary savings, or be redeployed to fund victim support services, more welfare rights and independent money advice services, law centres, the advice sector, or civil legal aid services generally," the proposal argues.
"We believe the priority must be to protect Scotland's vulnerable and low income citizens from the worst consequences of unprecedented welfare benefit and public funding cuts. This cannot be done in the current economic climate without innovative regulatory and structural reform of our existing legal aid system."
The creation of a new "strategic body" tasked with providing "universal access of justice in Scotland" is a central plank of the proposal. Its purpose is to "prevent legal problems occurring in the first place," the paper says.
"It should work with local authorities, voluntary sector, community organisations, court, tribunals and others to ensure that no person is disadvantaged through lack of legal advice, representation and assistance.
"Every local authority should be statutorily required to produce an access to justice strategy which ensures access to legal advice, representation and assistance including qualified legal advice where required and which meets the needs of the community. We need a law centre for every community in Scotland which is community controlled and is tasked with meeting the needs of both individuals and the wider community in Scotland."
The committee also calls for redeployment of the PDSO’s funding, and claims the body tenders up to twice as many guilty pleas on behalf of its clients as private practitioners.
"The Public Defence Solicitors’ Office is an expensive body that provides services already available, and provided for, within the criminal justice system. It does not satisfy an unmet need, by reason of the fact that there is very little unmet legal need within the field of Scottish criminal defence law," the paper argues.
"In summary criminal cases we estimate that the PDSO is twice as expensive as private practitioners, and in duty solicitor cases, over 10 times as expensive as private practitioners. There is also a significant disparity between the number of guilty pleas tendered on behalf of client’s between PDSO and independent private practitioners. Some 63% of pleas tendered by PDSO solicitors on behalf of clients are ‘guilty’ whereas the average rate amongst the independent private criminal bar is 41%.
"In Glasgow, the PDSO is responsible for twice the number of guilty pleas for accused persons, proportionately, as against independent, private practitioners in Glasgow."
The Head of the Chief Executive's Office and the Communications Department at the Scottish Legal Aid Board, Marie-Louise Fox, said the board had yet to take a view on whether to respond to the paper, but added that "it contains a lot of what appear to be misleading or incorrect figures."
"The Board said that as they have only just seen the document today, they are reviewing it and will provide comment, if appropriate, in due course," she added.
The paper can be read in full here.