After the changes made to justice system in Scotland, now is the time to reform “hugely complex” legal aid too, according to a discussion paper published by the Law Society of Scotland.
The paper suggests a number of possible reforms, including reducing the eligibility levels for civil legal aid, along with introducing “affordable legal assistance loans”, which would be provided through the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) to help people with legal expenses.
Savings that are made should be reinvested into the legal aid system, suggests the Law Society, while the block free system for criminal legal aid should be streamlined. It also proposes that changes to the system should be used to encourage the early resolution of cases.
Law Society president Alistair Morris said: “The current legal aid system is almost 30 years old. In that time there has been extensive change which has resulted in a system that is hugely complex, with even highly experienced solicitors reporting that they find it difficult to navigate.
“We don’t believe that the current system is fit for purpose and, with the ongoing reforms to modernise the wider court and justice system, the time is right for root and branch change.
“We need to rethink legal aid as a whole and look at where efficiencies can be made and how savings can be reinvested to ensure that people can obtain legal advice when they need it most, regardless of their status or wealth.”
In its paper, the Law Society said the “existing system lacks clarity, is inefficient and is administratively burdensome. It leads to unnecessary time and resources being spent by SLAB and solicitors at every stage of the process.”
The Law Society said its paper is “only a starting point for discussion” and that some of the ideas “may not meet with universal support” but hope that it will encourage discussion among solicitors and others about the future of legal aid in Scotland.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We must reduce expenditure on the legal aid fund, and in such a way that it does not affect the availability of legal aid to those who need it.
“If we do not reduce costs then we risk significantly reducing the scope of legal aid, which could damage access to justice.
“We welcome the Law Society of Scotland’s willingness to take part in the conversation about how we can continue to provide a high quality legal aid system in times of financial constraint.”