Strategic Aim 1: Place User Voice and Interest at the Centre
The Edinburgh Bar Association welcomes Mr Evans comments in his opening paragraph on page 26 of the review. He identifies the public benefits of a well-run legal aid service namely “improving the quality of life for recipients; tackling inequality; empowering individuals and making a significant contribution to the delivery of social justice”. We agree that the public perception of legal aid is often negative. We would welcome steps to further educate the public on the benefits of appropriate legal aid funding.
In the case of criminal legal aid, placing the user voice and interest at the centre can be problematic. The vast majority of our clients suffer from some form of vulnerability and would struggle to represent their own interests. Accordingly, we welcome the recommendations 5 and 6 on page 36 of the report. We agree that criminal defence legal aid solicitors should play a pivotal role in court business planning and the strategic planning of the justice system.
We would also stress that whilst the “user” refers to our clients, the public as a whole benefits from a well-run publicly funded legal aid system. The involvement of legal aid solicitors can facilitate agreement of evidence and in many cases negotiation of appropriate pleas of guilty, thus saving time and money and limiting the number of witnesses required to attend court. The provision of legal aid for criminal defence solicitors ensures an equality of arms between the accused and the state and is a safeguard against miscarriages of justice.
It is disheartening to read that Mr Evans had “real concerns in my mind around awareness and trust” following the input from the focus group. It would be helpful to see publicly funded legal aid promoted as a benefit to the public at large rather than kowtowing to the negative misconceptions that many people have. In terms of quality assurance, Scottish criminal legal aid solicitors have an excellent track record. We are subject to peer review as well as audit by both the Law Society of Scotland and the Scottish Legal Aid Board. None of these systems of review reflect the utilitarian value to the system of justice as a whole of legal aid practitioners. We do not shy away from scrutiny but it should be accompanied with appropriate explanation of the work we do and the manner in which we are reviewed.