Rural areas left out in the cold by new fixed fee proposals

Philip Dry says that in an over-zealous attempt to obtain value for money, the Government has disregarded the issue of access to justice.

People would be well advised not to commit a crime on the Hebridean island of North Uist – which, of course, would always be the best advice. If they did, however, they would come within the jurisdiction of Lochmaddy Sheriff Court, which has no solicitors resident within its jurisdiction. And if the Government's proposals regarding fixed fees for summary criminal cases goes through without modification, it seems unlikely that solicitors will be prepared to travel the distance and, in particular, expend the time necessary to represent the parties, thereby depriving the accused person of legal representation.

There can be no other profession in which people would be expected to wait from 10am until late in the afternoon without being paid – which is what the proposals for fixed fees entail. Furthermore, solicitors, along with other court users, can be held in contempt of court if they do not turn up at the appointed time.

The Government must bring forward proposals to reduce the cost of the criminal justice without affecting people's rights. The Law Society of Scotland has long been calling for increased court efficiency – such as the better use of IT and the time-tabling of courts.

Scotland is known for its common-sense approach to the law. The Government should listen to and respect this tradition. Fixed fees have not proved to be effective in England and Wales, so why inflict an ineffective solution on Scotland?

I understand the Government wishes to obtain value for money for legal aid expenditure. I am in full agreement with Henry McLeish, the minister at the Scottish Office, who is responsible for such matters, when he says: “Legal aid is and will remain an essential part of a humane and fair society” – this is, however, no more than an acknowledgement of the Government's obligations as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.

Instead of trying to impose fixed fees, they should be joining with us in ensuring the quality of the system, bringing in the improvements which I have suggested and ending the inefficiencies and needless waste of the current system, which increases the cost of legal aid, but does not improve access to justice.

The proposals are all about cuts and not access to justice. They will leave a number of accused, particularly in rural areas, unrepresented. The Government must properly address this issue.