On 1 October The Public Defence Solicitors' Office opened in Edinburgh.
For those who are unaware of the implications, the five-year pilot scheme involves a team of six defence solicitors who are being paid an annual salary by the Scottish Legal Aid Board to deal with summary criminal cases.
It has been described as justice by astrology, given that only those with birthdays in January and February who cannot afford to pay for their own defence, will be represented by a public defence solicitor.
The scheme got off to a slightly shaky start when, as one newspaper reported: “As defendants waited in vain in courtroom cells, the six solicitors involved had coffee with the Scottish Home Affairs Minister, Henry McLeish.”
The local Bar contributed to the furore, by suggesting that the public defence solicitors were enjoying a champagne reception instead of representing their clients in court!
The director of the office, Alastair Watson was in his former life a solicitor in private practice in Paisley. I think he may have overstepped the mark when he went on record as saying “Legal Aid is there to defend poor people and not to provide a living for solicitors” – He is not unpaid!
Returning to the matter of selecting people to take part in the public defender trial, my wife, who is a school teacher, was intrigued by the selection of the months of January and February, rather than the early favourites of January and July, which would have given an appropriate demographic spread.
For the last 25 years, the intake date for primary schooling in Scotland has been the end of February, meaning that the people who have been selected to take part in the pilot scheme were just over 4 old years when they started school.
There is at the very least a view that they would be educationally under pressure from the very beginning, making them more or even less likely to offend. Does the Scottish Office know something that we don't?
The Law Society of Scotland must ensure that the public receive a quality service, and shall be closely monitoring the situation. Whatever the outcome, I am sure that Alastair Watson and his team will do their best. They are, after all, solicitors.