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Policy in detail: Reforming legal aid in Scotland

Legal aid is a key part of providing access to justice. It helps people to defend or pursue their rights if they can’t afford to do so. We are working to make the system more effective by reducing unnecessary costs and making sure support is targeted at those who need it most.

In 2013-14, the overall budget allocation to provide and administer legal aid was £159.5 million. With forecasts for legal aid expenditure continuing to be high and the Scottish Government budget reducing, our aim is to maintain and improve access to justice in the current economic climate through a series of legal aid reforms. These have already delivered around £21 million in savings to the Legal Aid Fund. The ambition is to maintain a fair, high quality and equitable system which maintains public confidence at an affordable and sustainable level of expenditure.

Unlike in other jurisdictions, we have not approached this challenge by proposing major changes to the scope of legal aid. Our view remains that wholesale reductions to scope can have a damaging impact on access to justice and can have adverse consequences for other parts of the justice system as well as wider society.

As set out in A Sustainable Future for Legal Aid, the proposed way forward for legal aid has four overarching themes:

  • focusing legal aid on those who need it most
  • ensuring wider access to justice – the right help at the right time
  • maximising the value of legal aid expenditure
  • making the justice system more efficient

Many changes are being progressed by changing the regulations sitting under the Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 1986. Other aspects are moving forward through primary legislation such as the Scottish Civil Justice Council and Criminal Legal Assistance Act 2013, as well as other methods.

Even with such reforms, the legal aid system in Scotland will continue to face considerable pressures, including potential costs arising from judgements such as the UK Supreme Court in the Cadder v HMA case. This case related to whether an accused person should have access to legal advice where they are detained by the police for questioning.

Renewing Scotland: The Government’s Programme for Scotland, published on September 7, 2011, set out the Scottish Government’s intention to maintain and improve access to justice in the current economic climate, including taking forward a series of legal aid reforms. The proposals in A Sustainable Future for Legal Aid set out how we will do this.