When the Independent Review of Legal Aid was established by the Scottish Government, the Edinburgh Bar Association welcomed the opportunity to provide evidence of its experience in recent years. That evidence was given in good faith and in the expectation that it would be given its due regard. The EBA highlighted at the outset that the opportunity to respond came at a time when its number of solicitors providing Legal Assistance had reduced to a critical level. Indeed, since the Association’s evidence was provided to the review, it has been ascertained that the number of solicitors providing Criminal Legal Assistance in Edinburgh has reduced since 2011 by between one quarter and one third. Of that figure, two thirds are female, notwithstanding the fact that women account for only a third of all Scottish lawyers registered to provide criminal Legal Aid.
During that same period, the number of criminal courts in Edinburgh has increased by a quarter. In addition, a specialised domestic abuse court has been incepted and is now one which sits daily. The inverse correlation between the numbers of solicitors providing criminal Legal Aid and the number of courts for which criminal Legal Assistance is required renders the provision of that service within our jurisdiction enormously problematic. It is inexorably true that if the trend continues, the ramifications for the system of criminal justice will be catastrophic.
Against that background, it is especially alarming that the number of criminal solicitors in Scotland has reduced by almost five percent since the publication of the review alone. That represents an acceleration in the rate of departure. Lamentably, this Association is unsurprised. The Report on the Independent Review has been received by Legal Aid solicitors in this jurisdiction with disappointment at best and offence at worst. In this consultation response, the EBA has sought to detail why the Review has been received so poorly and why any reliance on its findings will result inevitably in the continued demise in this most socially useful of professions.
The Edinburgh Bar Association commends the Scottish Government for its acknowledgment that the Legal Aid system finds itself in such a precarious position that this Review was urgently required. We understand also that the time and resource committed to the Review will cause the Government to place faith in the recommendations set out in its report. However, the Edinburgh Bar Association is of the view that any time which is spent taking forward the Review’s recommendations will surely correspond to the continued rapid decline of this profession.
The Edinburgh Bar Association is clear in its position that the Review is fundamentally redundant and that the Scottish Government should immediately reject it. Instead, the Government should now engage in direct consultation with the profession in an attempt to salvage a system without which our nation cannot properly claim to operate under the Rule of Law. In support of that position, we ask that the content of this response is referred to. Leaving aside the views of this Association however, the evidence available since the Review was published is there for all to see.