Reply from Ash Denham to the EBA (please note, the format is different from the original letter but the text is the same)

Thank you for your correspondence of 1 1 June 2019 regarding written evidence provided by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice to Margaret Mitchell MSP, Convenor of the Justice

Committee on 15 April 2019. As the Minister with portfolio responsibility for legal aid, it has been passed to me to respond.

Firstly, I would like to assure you that this government does value the legal profession and the vital role that they play in our justice system.

A strong legal system is critical to the rule of law and upholding human rights. Ensuring that Scotland maintains a flexible and progressive system of legal aid that is both sustainable and cost effective is being taken forward through engagement with the legal profession and our aim is to include that profession in delivering justice through a modern and efficient court system.

I appreciate the disappointment felt by many members of the legal profession that the review of legal aid did not recommend an immediate uplift in legal aid fees and instead supported the need to build and agree an evidence base on which fees could be reviewed. While that work will be taken forward by the Expert Payment Review Panel, the Scottish Government recognised that short term solutions were necessary in order to address the low morale and financial challenges being faced by some members of the legal profession.

Therefore I was pleased to be able to implement a 3% uplift in all legal fees despite the very challenging position facing public expenditure, In the face of cuts to the Scottish Budget from Westminster, we have maintained the scope of legal aid and the 3% uplift sits in stark contrast to the position in England and Wales, where a 1% increase was applied only to criminal barristers.

In respect of your comments around the work undertaken in 201 1 to reduce legal aid expenditure, I must emphasise that the Scottish Government and the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) have found no evidence to suggest a commitment to reverse the cuts made to legal aid fees. It would be helpful if you could provide me with the evidence of this commitment that you refer to in your letter.

You also refer to a disparity between the figures for the initial cost savings sought in 2010/1 1 and the cost savings to date. You should note that spending on legal aid makes up only one pan of the Justice Portfolio budget and any savings made in one area need to be balanced against constraints for the budget as a whole.

There has been no expansion of PDSO since the agreement in 201 1 to increase the share of the PDSO on the court duty plans as part of the savings package at that time. The LSS agreed to this change and it was limited to a small increase in solicitors.

In terms of the number of criminal courts in Edinburgh, these figures were provided to the Scottish Government by the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, If you feel their figures are incorrect then you may wish to raise this point with them.

I understand that the Chief Executive of SLAB is meeting with the Edinburgh Bar Association on the 23 July 2019. In the first instance it may be helpful to share concerns around criminal practice trainees, and the points you raise around age and gender in the profession with SLAB further at this meeting. In connection, the following article may be of interest: https://www.slab.org.uk/providers/mailshots/newsfeed/traineenumbers.html

I look forwards to continuing my engagement with the legal profession as we work towards creating a legal aid system that is sustainable, fair for all, user-focused and has the flexibility to adapt to emerging situations and developments.

 

ASH DENHAM

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