Change to legal aid threshold proposed

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Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has announced plans to change the threshold above which people would be asked to make a contribution to their criminal legal aid fee. 

Speaking ahead of a meeting with the Law Society on Wednesday afternoon, he confirmed that he is willing to raise the weekly disposable income threshold, above which people must make contributions to their defence costs, from £68 to £82.

He will lodge amendments at Stage 3 of the Bill and hopes the Parliament will be supportive of that move. 

The Scottish Civil Justice Council and Criminal Legal Assistance Bill currently provides that those with a disposable income above £68 should make a contribution to their criminal legal aid fee.

It is anticipated that more than 80 per cent of applicants for criminal legal aid will be unaffected by the changes proposed in the bill.

Some solicitors have previously taken action to disrupt court proceedings in protest at the proposed changes. The meeting with the Law Society later today will provide an opportunity to discuss the issue.

Mr MacAskill has previously said he was prepared to consider an increase but has not said how much.

He said: “I have always been willing to increase the threshold and the figure of £82 has been suggested by the Law Society. I am not fixed on this figure, however, and I will discuss the final threshold that will go forward at Stage 3 in further discussions with the Law Society. As I have always made clear, the cost of this will need to be met from elsewhere in the legal aid fund.

“The legal profession has been very vocal about the potential risk to access to justice that the current threshold level presents and this change to the threshold should address this. Regular discussions have been held with the Law Society, both before the introduction of the Bill and after at which I have heard these concerns.

“It was regrettable that the profession chose to take disruptive action while discussions were ongoing, and to present the position as an impasse, especially when the losers were some of their clients who appeared unrepresented in court.  It is hoped this decision will enable the profession to withdraw from further disruption.

“While we remain willing to discuss particular areas where we can make adjustments to assist the profession, expenditure on legal aid in 2011-12 was £157.3 million which was, despite savings, the second highest on record. The current legal aid scheme simply cannot be maintained without making savings and our proposals will deliver up to £3.9m of savings, which will allow us to maintain the broad scope of legal aid in Scotland for those who need it most, protecting access to justice.”