Nine out of ten law firms 'plan to quit' civil legal aid

THE future of civil legal aid in Scotland was thrown into doubt today by the publication of a survey showing nine out of ten law firms are so disillusioned with the system they are preparing to withdraw from all such cases over the next four years.

Lawyers across Scotland are frustrated with the bureaucracy, the way payments are worked out and, above all, with the low rates of pay under civil legal aid.

As a result, the number of law firms still offering their services for civil legal aid has gone down, with most of the remaining 736 firms preparing to pull out in the next four years.

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Civil legal aid is provided to those who cannot afford the services of a solicitor in non-criminal cases. The most common use is for divorce, but women being abused often need legal aid to get court orders to keep their abusers away. Civil legal aid is also provided for adoption cases, debt and child law.

The survey also suggests that only a rethink of the system will prevent its wholesale collapse.

Oliver Adair, the convener of the Law Society's Legal Aid (solicitors) committee, warned that the most vulnerable in society would suffer if, as now seems likely, solicitors withdraw their services.

And he added that the 2003 reforms to the system, which were supposed to increase access for the most vulnerable, might end up doing the opposite.

The Law Society conducted the survey after hearing increasing amounts of anecdotal evidence of dissatisfaction with the reforms that were introduced by the previous Scottish administration.

The reforms were supposed to make the system simpler and more accessible for those most in need, introducing standard block fees for lawyers for set amounts of work and allowing lawyers to be paid for at least some of their work before the case was completed.

The basic fee is 19 for a block of work, and although the rates vary depending on the type of case, the kind of work involved and the court, it works out roughly at 52.60 an hour for work outside court and 60 an hour for representing clients in court.

However, the survey found 92 per cent of lawyers who provide services under civil legal aid were planning to end the service in the next four years. Most believe that they are getting so much less now, in terms of legal aid fees, that it does not make any sense to stay within the system.

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When asked their reasons for either giving up or considering quitting civil legal aid, 80 per cent of lawyers said it was because the system was "financially unviable" and 60 per cent also complained about bureaucracy.

For most firms, civil legal aid amounts to only a small part of their work, so it would not be difficult for them to pull out.

While the Law Society survey stopped short of warning of a crisis, Mr Adair did admit that there were very serious problems ahead unless something was done to reform the system.

He said the funding system was not flexible enough to cope with cases which needed a lot of work. "Unfortunately, the people who will be the worst affected will be the most disadvantaged in society. The people who need help the most will not get access to it if lawyers pull out of the system," he said.

"Instead of improving access to justice, it would appear that the changes are having the opposite effect."

But Colin Sim, from the Legal Aid Board, said a review of the fee level had been started and it would be decided by ministers in the near future.

Mr Sim said: "There have already been changes and there is a review of the fee level under way. It is now a matter of the fee level to give an appropriate fee for solicitors, but it is unlikely to match the increases in private fees over recent years."

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: "We are aware that civil legal aid fee levels are a major concern for solicitors. That is why the Scottish Legal Aid Board is reviewing the fees paid to solicitors undertaking civil legal aid work to see if the block fee arrangements are providing an appropriate level of remuneration.

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"In the meantime, regulations have been laid in parliament this week which will improve payments for undefended (non-divorce) civil actions in the sheriff court. This should make it more financially viable for solicitors to take on work such as seeking a protection order."