Criminal lawyers in Edinburgh withdraw from Justice of the Peace legal aid duty scheme

Criminal lawyers in Edinburgh have withdrawn from a legal aid duty scheme covering the Justice of the Peace court because there are too few solicitors to do the work.

Ninety-one criminal law members of the Edinburgh Bar Association, belonging to 35 firms, have stopped providing cover to the Scottish Legal Aid Board’s (SLAB) JP rota.

There are now only four solicitors in private practice, from four firms, on the plan.

However, the EBA will continue to provide cover for the Sheriff Court, Domestic Abuse Custody Court and extradition rotas.

EBA vice-president Robert More said the decision was made after the association “conducted a review of our capacity because our numbers are dwindling”.

“Approximately a quarter to a third of our number has left since 2011,” he told The Herald.

“That includes retirements and people who have left the profession, but an alarming number of young people have left and that has continued since the publication of the legal aid review.”

The Scottish government commissioned a review of legal aid this year, undertaken by Carnegie UK Trust chief executive Martyn Evans, which ruled out an overall increase in legal aid fees, despite practitioners consistently pointing out that poor fees were destroying the legal aid sector.

Mr More said: “I know the review was received with fairly profound disappointment among legal aid lawyers in Edinburgh.”

“We are reviewing all the work that we undertake and are considering whether there is other work that is untenable for us to continue doing,” he added.

A spokesperson for SLAB said the Edinburgh JP duty plan would be covered by lawyers from the Public Defence Solicitors’ Office (PDSO) in addition to the four remaining EBA solicitors.

They added: “The EBA didn’t raise concerns about the sustainability of the JP plan with us before making this decision. We are happy to discuss ideas for changing the way the plan operates in Edinburgh, as we do in all areas, to design duty services that balance the interests of local solicitors, accused and the courts.”

Law Society of Scotland Legal Aid Committee co-convenor Ian Moir said the way cases qualify for legal aid in the JP court and the number of cases heard there is such that other bar associations could also withdraw.

“You have to have a lawyer available at court [when your firm is on the rota] and often they don’t do anything at all but you can’t do other work like visit a prison and you only get paid if you put someone through the court,” Mr Moir said.

“Even if you see someone in a cell you don’t get paid for it. I would expect that other bars will probably follow the EBA’s lead.”