Scotland faces losing a generation of lawyers capable of defending people accused of crime, it has been warned.
The Faculty of Advocates — an organisation that has assisted and represented the legal profession in the country since 1532 — has reiterated fears of a serious lack of young law graduates taking the criminal bar.
There has been around a 25% reduction in the number of criminal law firms and lawyers in the past decade, the Scottish Conservatives said.
Scottish Government minister Ash Denham claimed the reason there were fewer was due to a reduction in the crime rate— derided as “total nonsense” by the Scottish Conservatives.
Numbers reduced ‘to a trickle’
Ronnie Renucci QC, vice-dean of the Faculty of Advocates, said: “It has been obvious for some time to those at the Criminal Bar that the flow of new solicitors coming into the criminal branch of the profession has reduced to a trickle.
“The present pandemic has only served to highlight a problem that has been simmering beneath the surface for a considerable time and and there is a genuine concern that unless something is done to address the issue there is a real danger that we could be facing a lost generation of criminal lawyers.
“The importance of this, not only to the wider profession but also to society at large, should not be underestimated because without that steady flow of new solicitors coming through there is a genuine risk that access to justice for those who need it most will be severely restricted.”
Writing for us, Scottish Conservative justice spokesperson Liam Kerr said: “The SNP really expects us to believe that young aspiring lawyers have gazed into the future, predicted the SNP’s dubious statistics and associated spin in relation to offending, and decided to change their career path as a result?
“It’s a total nonsense — not least because my recollection is that many criminal practitioners view it almost as a ‘calling’ and are incredibly dedicated to the discipline — and the public will see it as such, especially in those communities where crime is only going in one direction, and it is not the downward one Ms Denham talks of.”
Claim crime reduction leads to lawyer reduction
Asked in parliament about dwindling numbers, minister for community safety Ms Denham said: “Anecdotally, it is reported that the number of legal trainees in criminal practice has decreased; however, this appears to reflect the fall in reported crime over several years, the subsequent fall in cases proceeding to court, and the business models of many criminal law practitioners.
“While Scottish Government can provide support to improve the diversity of the legal profession, it has little in the way of legislative powers to direct activity.
“Any support needs to be carefully managed to ensure that there is no perception of compromising the independence of the legal profession in Scotland.
“The Scottish Government has encouraged the Law Society to promote greater diversity; for example, through more ‘family friendly’ policies and more open recruitment and promotion in firms.
“In addition, we are already working jointly with the Law Society of Scotland and the Scottish Legal Aid Board to identify appropriate ways to support solicitors in responding to changes to their business as a result of the pandemic, and will be working with these stakeholders as part of the reform of the legal aid programme.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson added: “Scotland’s legal profession, along with other justice partners, has worked hard since the Covid-19 outbreak to maintain access to justice service.
“The number of lawyers registered to provide legal aid remains stable and has not significantly changed since this time last year.”