Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) has responded to the Scottish Government's consultation on reforming legal aid.
Access to legal aid is vital to ensure that people are both aware of and can enforce their legal rights and responsibilities. As laws become more complex, professional advice and representation is often necessary. Public funding for this helps to ensure equality before the law and contribute to a fairer society. The purpose of legal aid should be defined in law as an essential part of the justice system as a public service.
The Citizens Advice Scotland network is actively involved in securing access to justice for our clients. Our bureaux give advice on accessing legal aid ten times every working day. Last year our advisers and volunteers also made over 6,000 appearances before courts and tribunals, succeeding in 85% of cases and generating millions of pounds of real gains in the pockets of vulnerable people.
CAS argues strongly that the citizen should be placed at the heart of the system. Currently, legal aid is managed between the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) as a public body, and the lawyers who represent and advise clients, with limited knowledge or involvement by those who are most directly affected. Processes should be built from the user outwards and should engage them and their representative organisations in service design and delivery.
CAS also believes that there should be a fundamental shift towards early intervention and prevention in the legal aid budget. This should include a “triage” system with lay legal advisers dealing with straightforward issues and referring more complex cases to lawyers; targeting publicly-funded legal assistance to legal issues and areas of Scotland which are currently poorly served; promoting a greater use of alternative ways of resolving disputes, such as mediation; and making legal aid available for tribunals and simple procedure cases at first instance.
CAS also argues for more predictability and accountability for public spending on legal aid which continues to be delivered by lawyers in private practice.
The full submission is available to view at the link below. If you have any comments or queries, please contact our Access to Justice Senior Policy Officer, Derek Young.