SCOTLAND’S finely balanced criminal legal aid system is on the brink of meltdown after a wave of solicitors pulled out of the police station duty rota that provides advice to suspects.

With over 250 more considering a similar move, the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB), which runs the police station duty scheme, is facing the prospect of having to increase its own team of lawyers to cover the work. This could lead to a significant increase in the overall cost to the public purse via the legal aid fund.

Solicitors say this points to a legal aid system that is in crisis, particularly as initiatives like the police duty scheme are designed to keep costs to a minimum.

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“This is a situation that has been coming for a long time but it’s finally reached breaking point,” said Robert More, a criminal defence lawyer who also serves as vice-president of Edinburgh Bar Association. “This is the issue that is going to tip it over the edge.”

The issue stems from new rules coming in on January 25 that will give everyone being questioned in a police station the right to legal advice, regardless of the severity of the offence or whether they have even been charged.

Ian Moir, convener of the Law Society of Scotland’s criminal legal aid committee, said that while this is “an excellent development” that upholds citizens’ rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, it would lead to significantly increased workloads for those participating in the duty scheme.

Although the SLAB said it expected the new rules to result in solicitors making eight additional police station visits each week in Edinburgh and 17 or 18 a week in Glasgow, Edinburgh Bar Association president Leanne McQuillan said that on a trial run in Edinburgh last month one solicitor had to deal with 17 calls from police between 9pm and 6am.

Mr Moir said calls of this level would be unmanageable because firms, which have seen some legal aid fees frozen since 1992 at the same time as the overall legal aid budget has fallen by 10 per cent in the past five years, cannot attract enough staff to separately cover their duty shifts. This means solicitors are on call overnight at the same time as working full days for their own clients.

Herald View: Legal aid system must be fixed before it is too late

“I can’t ask one of my employees to go out at 3am, get back at 7.30am, have a shower then drive to Inverness to do a case then when they get back from that go and do another night,” he said.

“Universities have told people for years not to come into this field so we’re struggling to recruit - it’s really at crisis point now.

“We’ve been pressing [SLAB] hard to look at the issue of fees but it’s a critical factor now because it’s been left for so long.”

Given these concerns, in the run up to Christmas the Edinburgh Bar Association, whose members account for around 100 of the 845 solicitors on the police station duty scheme, voted unanimously to resign from it.

“Our concern was that, come January 25, it would be chaos,” Ms McQuillan said.

“We can’t expect members of staff to be in court all day and then be on call. We felt we just didn’t want to do it – everybody felt the same.”

Solicitors in Aberdeen, the Borders, Dunbartonshire, Falkirk and Moray have since followed suit, with Glasgow Bar Association, which provides around 200 solicitors to the duty scheme, due to vote on the matter this month.

The 50 solicitors that take part in the scheme in Dundee are also expected to withdraw, with local solicitor George Donnelly saying they “stand totally behind the Edinburgh Bar Association and its decision”.

Lawyers in Dumfriesshire and Livingstone are also considering their positions.

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As solicitors groups have indicated that they would not be willing to provide cover in areas where members have resigned from the scheme, it is likely that the SLAB will now have to look at increasing its own lawyer numbers.

“Our normal practice over the last six years has been that, where a local duty solicitor cannot attend, we will either contact other duty solicitors or a solicitor from the Solicitor Contact Line or Public Defence Solicitors’ Office will attend,” said the SLAB’s head of criminal legal assistance Kingsley Thomas.

“If as a result of local action against the duty plans we have to fall back on such arrangements more regularly, it is likely that we will have to expand our employed solicitor capacity.

“This will help ensure that those in police custody and in need of advice are able to get it quickly.”

Mr Thomas said it is not possible to work out how much this would cost the SLAB in salaries and benefits because at the moment it is not clear how many staff it would require.

Herald View: Legal aid system must be fixed before it is too late

On average, both the Solicitor Contact Line and Public Defence Solicitors’ Office pay their staff, which includes administrative staff, £35,000 per year and enrols them into a defined benefit pension scheme.

In the last year the SLAB spent £500,000 on external police duty solicitors, with that figure expected to rise to £3.2 million when new fee arrangements come in later this month.