As solicitors in England and Wales await the Ministry of Justice’s decision on whether it will scrap its latest cut to legal aid fees, practitioners in Scotland are to boycott a new appeal court over rates they say were last increased 23 years ago.
Members of the Falkirk & District Faculty of Solicitors are to boycott the new Sheriff Appeal Court, which was established this month.
The court is part of changes brought in by the Courts Reform (Scotland) Act 2014, which received royal assent in November last year. The court will deal with summary appeals in criminal cases. It will have jurisdiction in civil cases from January next year.
In an open letter to cabinet secretary for justice Michael Matheson, published in Scottish Legal News, solicitor William McIntyre said the proposed rates of pay for solicitors were last increased in 1992.
‘Unfortunately, none of my overheads have remained frozen in time and my staff seem to expect annual pay rises at least in line with inflation,’ McIntyre wrote. ‘It is true that some of the discount retailers do their best, but I have been unable to find a local supermarket that will sell me goods at 1992 prices.’
McIntyre said members of the faculty of solicitors had decided ‘it is simply unaffordable to subsidise criminal appeals in 2015 by carrying out work at 1992 rates of pay’.
A spokesperson for the Scottish government said it ‘fully intends to review’ the court’s operation and will ‘revisit the fees as part of the wider range of legal aid reform’ it has discussed with the Law Society of Scotland and a ‘wider group’ of stakeholders.
‘Solicitors will be able to take on representation work if they want to,’ the spokesperson said. ‘Where they are unable or unwilling to do so, arrangements are in place to make representation available to the client without disrupting the court.’
Solicitors unable or unwilling to take on representation work can, for instance, apply to the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) for sanction for counsel.
Solicitors in England and Wales suspended a nationwide legal aid boycott last month as a ‘goodwill gesture’ to the MoJ, which introduced a second 8.75% fee cut on 1 July.
Practitioner groups say they anticipate a response from the ministry on recent negotiations over the fee cut ‘very soon’.