Scottish solicitors act against fixed fees

A prominent Scottish solicitor who organised a day of disruptive industrial action at Glasgow Sheriff Court has accused Scottish Office minister Henry McLeish of turning his back on lawyers' fears.

Angry Scottish criminal legal aid solicitors refused to represent clients in Glasgow Sheriff Court last week in protest at Scottish Office proposals to introduce fixed fees for summary criminal legal aid and cut £10m from the budget.

Under the plans, solicitors will be paid £575 for a case lasting longer than half an hour, regardless of its complexity, and given an extra £100 per day.

Solicitors forced the court to sit until 9pm to deal with 92 clients held in custody by refusing to do any pro bono work, during a “day of action” organised by Glasgow Bar Association (GBA).

GBA president Jim Wallace said the Scottish Office proposals had caused “widespread fear” among solicitors, adding that a GBA survey had shown fixed fees would cause almost a quarter of sole practitioners to quit doing legal aid criminal work.

Wallace said Scottish Office minister Henry McLeish had refused to budge on the plans, contained in Scottish Office consultation paper, Consultation on criminal legal aid (fixed payments) (Scotland) Regulations 1998. The consultation period was due to end on 13 December.

Wallace said: “Whilst [McLeish] says he will consult, he has told us he won't consult on fixed fees or cutting £10m from the budget – but that is all the consultation paper contains. This is not much of a consultation period then.”

He added: “No hostility was expressed by the sheriffs during the day and, privately, the indications are that the majority of sheriffs support us.”

The Law Society of Scotland has joined in the campaign, branding fixed fees “rough justice”.

President Philip Dry said the plans would “seriously affect access to justice for those who cannot afford to pay for legal advice”.

McLeish has also turned down requests from the GBA to delay the proposals until after the Scottish parliament is launched in July, and from both the GBA and the Law Society of Scotland for a review of the criminal justice system in Scotland.

A spokesman from the Scottish Office said: “We are astonished the GBA had a day of action before it even submitted its formal response to the consultation paper. Proposals for fixed fees were contained in the Crime and punishment Act 1997.”