Scotland

Scottish legal aid reform passed

Controversial laws which would see some accused people having to pay criminal court defence costs have been passed by the Scottish Parliament.

The legislation, which would also see lawyers being responsible for collecting money from clients, provoked anger from the legal profession.

The Scottish government amended some of the plans, in light of the concerns.

But ministers said changes were needed to cut the size of Scotland's criminal legal aid bill.

The Scottish government said the 2011-12 legal aid bill, which came to £157.3m, was the second highest on record and that its proposals would cut the figure by almost £4m.

Measures in the Scottish Civil Justice Council and Criminal Legal Assistance Bill led to lawyers taking part in one-day boycotts at several sheriff courts and protesting outside the Holyrood parliament, saying they could "incentivise the innocent accused to plead guilty" and turn solicitors into unpaid government debt collectors.

As the legislation was passed by MSPs by 62 votes to 53, solicitors warned it could be subject to further legal challenge.

The legislation had required accused people with a disposable income of more than £68 a week contribute to defence costs - although Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill took action to increase the threshold to £82.

Ministers said more than 80% of criminal legal aid applicants would be unaffected by the changes, which they argued would maintain legal aid for those who needed it most.

Mr MacAskill told parliament: "The passing of this bill will deliver vital savings to ensure legal aid can be targeted at those who need it most."

The Law Society said changes it negotiated with the government meant some of the poorest people, including those with disabilities, would not have to make any contribution.

The solicitors body also said lawyers would be collecting contributions in far fewer cases, but argued the changes would still create "practical difficulties" for the profession.

It said all contributions should be collected by the Scottish Legal Aid Board.

Legal challenges

Labour's Malcolm Chisholm said of Mr MacAskill's changes: "The cabinet secretary has been forced to modify a very bad bill so it ends up simply as a bad bill."

Tory MSP Annabel Goldie added: "I'm glad the cabinet secretary has yielded to his metaphorical beating over the head and improved what was a poor situation and made it somewhat better."

Alison McInnes, of the Liberal Democrats, told parliament: "Legal professionals and members of the public alike are concerned about the potential impact that this bill will have."

Cameron Tait, of the Edinburgh Bar Association, said lawyers would not act in cases where outstanding contributions had not been paid.

Mr Tait said he expected the legislation to come into force in August, adding: "At that time, there will be a number of legal challenges that will be taken in situations where contributions are not paid.

"There are issues outstanding as to whether or not the contribution system will be compliant with the European Convention of Human Rights."

Ann Ritchie, president of the of the Glasgow Bar Association, added: "I've do doubt whatsoever that there will be challenges when accused people remain unrepresented."

The government bill also brings in reforms to the civil justice system.

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