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SCOTLAND's Legal Aid Board has backed plans to introduce a public defender scheme in the wake of a sharp increase in annual expenditure.
In its annual report, the SLAB said its spending had risen by 7.3 per cent to a record £143m, with criminal work (at a cost of £77.6m) responsible for most of the increase.
The English Legal Aid Board's spending increased by 5.2 per cent this year, and the Scottish increase has prompted a heated debate on the merits of the current system.
When she unveiled the report, SLAB chair Christine Davis backed the last government's plans to set up a pilot public defender scheme in Scotland for criminal legal aid which were incorporated in an act passed shortly before the general election.
Last week she met the Scottish Home Affairs Minister Henry McLeish to confirm that the Government wants to go ahead with the plan.
It is understood that similar pilots for civil legal aid are also in the pipeline, although no formal announcement has yet been made.
Geoffrey Hoon, the parliamentary secretary at the Lord Chancellor's Department, will be watching developments in Scotland closely.
He has confirmed that the review of legal aid being undertaken by Sir Peter Middleton is considering the merits of such a system.
However, the Law Society of Scotland fears that such a scheme, without proper funding, could lead to a worse service and deprive clients of the right to choose a lawyer. It also fears that a conflict of interest may arise if the state provides both prosecution and defence.
Prominent legal aid solicitor Gerry Brown, of Livingstone Brown in Glasgow, said the problem with the current system was the fact that it was starved of resources.
"The cost of legal aid has effectively been frozen since 1992 and it is becoming difficult to run a criminal legal aid practice," he said.