SNP hits back at accusations poor have limited access to legal aid

The Law Society of Scotland has called for an increase in fees for legal aid

The Law Society of Scotland has called for an increase in fees for legal aid

More than 40,000 people living in the poorest areas of a Scottish city do not have direct access to a single firm offering legal aid, according to analysis.

Research by the Law Society of Scotland found there were no firms operating in 50 of Aberdeen’s “most deprived” data-zones.

In the worst affected areas, there were 29 firms for 100,000 people and nearly nine in 10 had no local access at all.

The Society says chronic shortages of firms offering legal aid is being compounded by the fact that fees agreed in 1999 had only increased by 10 per cent, compared to an inflation increase of 55%.

However, the Scottish Government said it was “up to legal firms or solicitors” to offer services or to take a case on legal aid within an area, and added: “we can’t compel them to do so”.

It said the decline in the number of legal aid firms reflects, in the main, long-term declines in both criminal and civil case-loads.

READ MORE: Ministers say Scots legal aid system is among the best in the world as lawyers say court justice is ‘on brink of collapse’

Support for civil court actions is only offered to people with a disposable income of less than £293 per month – above that amount, there is a cost to be paid, which can be up to full repayment of fees.

The most common civil court cases include divorce and child contact or custody, adoption and immigration and asylum cases but may also involve medical negligence or securing social welfare payments.

The Scottish Government recently proposed an £11 million increase in spend across both criminal and civil legal aid – but this has been described as a “sticking plaster” by the Law Society.

The crisis is said to have been exacerbated by the fact that legal aid fees agreed in 1999 had only increased by 10%.

The analysis used data from the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation and the Scottish Legal Aid Registers.

In Edinburgh, 83,808 people share local access to one firm in 100 of the most deprived areas.

READ MORE: Scotland’s ‘entire legal system on brink of collapse’

Glasgow fared better, with 21 legal aid firms for 76,165 people in the 100 most deprived areas.

Social commentator and award-winning author Darren McGarvey has added his support to a campaign calling for improved access to financial support.

He said: “Just imagine standing in a courtroom on your own to argue your case, up against an experienced solicitor.

“Now, imagine that the custody of your child is at stake or a life-changing pay-out after an industrial accident.

“In a nation that prides itself on progressive social values, these figures should act as a stark warning.

“Those who are already most disadvantaged are having their last line of defence pulled away from them.”

The Law Society of Scotland is urging people to contact their local MSP if they share the writer’s concerns.

Murray Etherington, President of the Law Society of Scotland said: “Legal aid is a fundamental part of Scottish society.

“The lack of representation available to those who need it most continues to be an unresolved issue.

“The recently proposed Scottish Government increase in funding may provide a short-term sticking plaster, but it won’t address the deep wounds to the legal aid system caused by a generation of underfunding.”

Researchers acknowledged that the location of law firms is influenced by several factors, including proximity to courts, and that people may be able to travel a short distance to another area to find a firm.

However they added: “Our research clearly demonstrates the dearth of legal aid firms in Scotland, with the number of registered legal aid firms only declining further as more time passes without sufficient investment, and the disproportionate impact this has on the most vulnerable and marginalised communities in Scotland.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “It is up to legal firms or solicitors to offer services or to take a case on legal aid within an area, and we can’t compel them to do so.

“The decline in the number of legal aid firms reflects, in the main, long-term declines in both criminal and civil case-loads.

“It points to a need to innovate in the provision of access to legal services.

“The Scottish Government funds a number of law centres who provide advice and representation on issues not normally dealt with by commercial firms, as well as localised advice providers who are supported by grant funding from the legal aid fund.”

“We also fund public legal services through the Civil Legal Assistance Office and the Public Defence Solicitors’ Office.”

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