Solicitors in the north-east today downed their gowns and went on strike in a row over funding.
They joined colleagues across the country in taking industrial action after 11th hour talks with justice secretary Humza Yousaf collapsed on Sunday.
Bar associations had been in dialogue with the Scottish Government to try to negotiate an increase in payments for Legal Aid, which is available to help people who require a solicitor but can’t afford one.
Bar associations across Scotland are also unhappy about the support given to solicitors throughout the pandemic, and how a £9 million Scottish Government resilience fund support package has been distributed.
Today the strike action took the form of solicitors refusing to represent clients appearing from custody having been arrested over the weekend, known as custody cases.
In their absence, a duty solicitor took on all those cases.
‘The idea is to slow down the process for the custody courts’
Stuart Murray, president of the Aberdeen Bar Association, said: “Aberdeen Bar Association, in conjunction with a number of other bar associations in courts throughout the country, have taken the fairly last-minute view that they will take strike action today.
“The idea is to slow down the process for custody courts in demonstration of the Scottish Government and Humza Yousaf’s refusal to assist further with the financial difficulties that all Legal Aid lawyers find themselves in – both criminal and civil.
“It’s almost three decades since there’s been any substantial rise in payment of Legal Aid rates to the profession.
“While we appreciate that there has been recent uplift in some Legal Aid of 5%, that is 5% over the course of almost three decades.
“If you take that into account and the increases in pay that other professions have had, including nurses, etc, it may seem very generous. But the reality is that it’s way behind any inflationary increase that other professions would receive.
‘Vital government address this before it’s too late’
“It’s got to the stage now where it’s entirely damaging to the existence of a Legal Aid service, and that is a vital service to the public.
“It is a truth that criminal Legal Aid, and the absence of criminal Legal Aid lawyers, will have a severe impact on people’s liberty and it is vital that the government address this with a degree of urgency now before it’s too late and the profession dies an imminent death.
‘The situation is becoming desperate’
“It may well be that this is part of a series of actions that bar associations across the country take, but that’s a matter that needs to be dealt with by individual bar associations and their members. On this occasion, Aberdeen has chosen to become involved because the situation is becoming desperate.”
Mr Murray went on to say the old stereotype of a “fat cat” lawyer was not true of Legal Aid solicitors, and said nobody was “getting rich” from Legal Aid payments.
He said: “It may be understandable that a lot of people fall back on the old stereotype of a fat cat lawyer. But the reality is that most of us who deal in Legal Aid work are paid by the government at a very, very low rate.
“I can assure anybody that there are no criminal or civil Legal Aid lawyers who are getting rich off the back of Legal Aid pay.
“If we wanted to be rich, we’d be in an entirely different area of law, or indeed in an entirely different profession.”
Solicitor Alex Burn, of Burn and McGregor, said: “I think it’s quite right that action is being taken, there’s a resilience fund which has not been distributed correctly or properly.
“The government has given the prosecutors and other local authority bodies’ monies to take care of themselves – they have given us nothing, absolutely nothing.”
Mr Burn said he was only aware of “two, maybe three” criminal law firms locally benefitting from the fund.
‘We can not carry on like this’
And added: “Where is this money going?
“We turned up every day throughout the pandemic dealing with people who have their own difficulties.
“We have been at the forefront, we have had nothing from the Scottish Government whatsoever. If this is what it takes – we can not carry on like this.”
Peterhead-based solicitor Iain Jane hailed the nationwide collaboration behind today’s strike, saying that he believes all custody courts were covered, but in many places just by one solicitor rather than multiple.
“This will have caused things to run really slowly and highlights how important we are,” he said.
His firm, Iain Jane and Co, saw a drop in turnover of £60,000 last year, and he was offered £753 from the resilience fund.
“In 2019-2020 the legal aid paid out to solicitors was £94.5 million including VAT. In comparison, the figure for 2020-2021 was £74.1 million.
‘The whole thing is a sham’
“The Legal Aid Board had a reduction in spending of £21.5 million over the course of the year and it transpired that they were offering a resilience fund of £9.5 million which is just half of the amount they have saved.
“Of that, only £2.3 million has been paid out. The Scottish Goverment says the money will be distributed but there’s a real belief that the whole thing is a sham. It was a run up to an election and a false promise effectively. That’s how it appears.
“All this comes against a backdrop of a lack of legal funding for years now.”
Meanwhile, Stuart Beveridge, who is a duty solicitor at Banff Sheriff Court, said he backed the action.
Mr Beveridge, of the Grant Smith Law Practice, said: “Myself and my colleagues have continued to work right through the pandemic despite a catastrophic drop in legal aid income.
“Last month I received less income from the Scottish Legal Aid Board than I paid my part-time secretary. This is simply not sustainable. My firm, along with many others, applied for financial assistance from the Resilience Fund but were rejected.
“Only a fraction of the £9.5 million allotted to the fund was paid out. Many firms are now questioning whether they can continue to provide a criminal defence service which will inevitably affect access to justice for many of the most vulnerable in our society.”
‘Priority is to support those delivering Legal Aid services’
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Our priority remains to maintain and support the important role in the justice system of those delivering vital Legal Aid services in Scotland as we emerge from the pandemic.
“As well as delivering the first stage of an uplift to Legal Aid fees of more than 10% over the next two years, the Scottish Government launched a resilience fund to support Legal Aid solicitors.
“We received 288 applications – representing fewer than half of the potentially eligible active firms – and have offered awards totalling circa £2.3 million.
“We are fully committed to providing support to the profession and are working as a matter of urgency to explore options for distributing all unallocated funds from the £9 million budget set aside for the resilience fund.
“The Justice Secretary held talks with the Law Society last week, where he confirmed he is committed to ensuring more funds are made available. He is happy to engage with Criminal Bar Associations and discussions with the profession are ongoing.”