A recent open letter to the Scottish Legal Aid Board and the Law Society of Scotland’s Legal Aid Committee highlights the very real problem with civil legal aid in Scotland. The open letter concerned the fees paid by SLAB for work undertaken by the firm in a case before the UK Supreme Court. The case concerned the position of siblings in the Children’s hearing system and whether they should have the designation of a “relevant person”. In the end, the Supreme Court decided that they should not have the formal designation of a “relevant person”, but highlighted the importance of their involvement in the proceedings. That is just by way of background; what the solicitors complained of was the fee paid to them by the Scottish Legal Aid Board. They wrote that their fee was abated to just over £3,000. That may sound like a lot, but it is not at all for all of the work that would have went into preparing for a case in the Supreme Court which was heard over a period of two days.
Solicitors have been complaining about legal aid payments for a long time. Most of the recent public complaints have related to the criminal legal aid system; however, many of the same issues exist in the civil legal aid system as well.
Most civil litigation in Scotland takes place in the Sheriff Court; where solicitors typically do all of the work without the involvement of Counsel (although in more complex cases sanction can be sought to involve Counsel). In most civil cases the fees that solicitors receive are “block fees”; that is, a fee is payable for certain work no matter how long it takes. Each block of work is assigned a number of “units” and then there is a unit fee. The fee is calculated on the basis of units x unit fee. The current unit fee, applicable from April 2019, is £21.63. This unit fee was first set in 2003 at the rate of £19 per unit. So in the space of 17 years the unit fee has risen by £2.63 (or 13.84%). Averaging out the 13.84% increase over the past 17 years it gives an average of 0.84% per year (this is artificial because there hasn’t been an annual increase).
Inflation has been running considerably higher than 0.84% every year since 2003; using the Bank of England’s inflation calculator, £19 in 2003 would be worth about £30.27 in 2019 (the latest year that this calculator will allow you to calculate for). Again, it’s a rough estimation as it averages out inflation across the period. The calculator has worked it out on the basis of an average inflation rate of 3% per year.
What this shows us is that there has been a year-on-year real terms cut in the unit price paid by SLAB to solicitors for work undertaken; and a considerable one at that. Now, it would be fair to take account of the significant reductions in public spending that have occurred since 2010. However, assuming that the unit price had increased every year in line with average inflation between 2003 and 2010; and thereafter been a frozen until the 3% increase in 2019, the unit price would be in the region of (again, using the Bank of England’s inflation calculator) £24.13 today; higher than the £21.63 that it currently is (there is roughly an 11.5% difference).
Why should non-lawyers care about this? This cuts to the heart of our democracy. One of the central tenants of democracy is the rule of law; that doesn’t just apply between citizens and the state, but also between individuals and businesses. Without the ability to enforce rights (whether they be statutory rights or rights created by contract) they may as well not exist. Moreover, it is a disincentive to honour rights if you know that the other person is not going to be able to enforce those rights.
The reality is that more and more solicitors are withdrawing from providing legal aid services. They cannot afford to provide them. Lawyers typically to have an altruistic streak to their personality, but equally law firms are businesses and they need to make a profit. If law firms are not making a profit on their legal aid work then their privately paying work is having to subsidies that; it reaches a point where it becomes so uneconomical that firms either stop offering legal aid services altogether or they cannot continue to trade and close their doors (especially where the majority of their work comes from legal aid cases). This harms the rule of law; it makes it harder for people to find solicitors who can act for them if they’re unable to pay privately. The current concept of legal aid came into existence alongside other key aspects of our welfare system; it is a fundamental part of our welfare system.
There are some firms that make a considerable amount of money from the legal aid system. The annual report from SLAB shows what every single firm has been paid from the fund each year. However, there are a few things that those figures don’t reveal. Firstly, in the case of civil legal aid, firms are only paid at the conclusion of the case (although there have been some temporary changes made via the Coronavirus legislation allowing interim payments to be made; but this is temporary and does not reflect the usual position). Civil cases can last years; meaning these figures will inevitably include work that has been done in previous years. Civil cases lasting years has nothing to do with solicitors seeking to increase the fees that they get; that’s just not how it works. The delays often arise out of issues elsewhere in the system. Moreover, as indicated, most Sheriff Court work is paid on a block fee basis rather than an hourly basis; therefore, there is often no incentive at all for solicitors to “spin” things out to increase fees.
What should also be remembered is that these are payments to a business; like any other business. From those fees, the firms require to pay overheads. Every business has to pay overheads, but it is a factor that should not be overlooked when assessing how generous legal aid payments are: the overheads for running a solicitors firm are high. Many of these overheads relate to the highly regulated environment in which we (rightly) operate.
Finally, the firms making the most from legal aid will be doing “bulk work”; it probably accounts for the majority of the firm’s workload. The average cost to the taxpayer per case has fallen; so these large payments will also be coming from a large number of cases.
Our private rates significantly outstrip the amount we’re paid for legal aid. However, generally speaking the profession is not asking to be able to bill the taxpayer what we bill our privately paying clients. We recognise that the rates paid out of taxpayers’ money will be less; however, what we need is a system where the rates are increased more than a handful of times in the best part of 20 years. The system cannot continue to sustain the real term cuts of that it has seen historically. The system provides good value for money: our accounts are closely scrutinised and we need to justify every single charge to SLAB. Practitioners offering legal aid services are regularly subjected to “peer review” process; which looks at whether we’re complying with the technical requirements as well as the level of service being offered to the client. The peer review process is far from a box ticking exercise; our peers are tough but fair – if the standard of service offered is not up to scratch then we’re re-assessed and ultimately we can be stopped from providing legal aid if we fail to meet the standards.
The Scottish Government commissioned an independent review of the legal aid system in Scotland; it has reported and made many good recommendations about how to reform the system for the benefit of the public. On fees it concluded that it had seen insufficient evidence to support a general increase in fees; a conclusion that was criticised (and ultimately ignored, to some extent, by the Scottish Government who provided a general increase in 2019 anyway). The Scottish Government also established the “Legal Aid Payment Advisory Panel”; its work can be seen on the Scottish Government website. After the election next year, whoever forms the Scottish Government should prioritise taking forward the recommendations and conclusions of the review and the advisory panel.
Legal aid is a vital service and it is worth fighting for; politicians know that there are no votes in legal aid and so do not treat it with the priority that it deserves. In some respects the system in Scotland is in a much better place than the system in place in England and Wales; the Scottish Government hasn’t removed whole areas of the law from the scope of the civil legal aid system in the way that the UK Government has in England and Wales. However, that is not an excuse for refusing to deal with the issues in the system that exists here in Scotland (and those go beyond just the rates of pay) – this is an area within devolved competence; “at least we’re better than England” shouldn’t be an answer to criticism on any area of devolved responsibility – and legal aid should be no exception to that general proposition. Don’t let the Scottish Government dwindle the system away: it’s part of the safety net that exists and you never know when you may need it.