A cautious welcome was given to the Scottish Civil Justice Council and Criminal Legal Assistance Bill by the Justice Committee in its Stage 1 report published today.
The Bill has two separate purposes. Part 1 of the Bill creates a new Civil Justice Council, whose role will be to spearhead much-needed reforms to bring Scots civil law into the 21st century. This was widely welcomed by almost all stakeholders as well as the committee.
However, Part 2 of the Bill, which deals with financial contributions for criminal legal assistance, generated both concerns from stakeholders and recommendations from the committee.
While it agreed that people should make a contribution to legal aid in principle, the Committee asked the Scottish Government to consider whether refunds for acquitted persons should be made available in some circumstances. It pointed out that winning civil litigants can be awarded expenses.
The Committee also strongly believed that only those who can afford to make contributions should pay, and requested stronger reassurances that more vulnerable members of society would be protected and that there would be no incremental slide towards more people having to make a contribution.
The Committee has also asked the Government to look again at proposals to require solicitors, rather than the Scottish Legal Aid Board, to recover fees in summary cases. It noted concerns this could lead to unintended knock-on consequences for the effective running of the criminal justice system.
Committee Convener Christine Grahame MSP said:
“While the Justice Committee supports the general principles of the Bill, we have made a number of recommendations we expect the Scottish Government to consider carefully to improve this proposed legislation.
“We would like more information on the income threshold for contributing towards criminal legal aid. We would also like the Government to take another look at the possibility of allowing acquitted persons to recoup legal aid contributions under certain circumstances and at their current proposals to require solicitors to recover contributions themselves.”
The Stage 1 debate on the Scottish Civil Justice Council and Criminal Legal Assistance Bill will take place on Thursday 25 October.