FEARS are growing that the Scottish criminal legal aid system faces collapse at the end of this month with solicitors employed by the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) claiming that they are not prepared to deal with an expected influx of calls from police suspects.

Under new legislation that will come into force on January 25 anyone brought in for police questioning will be entitled to legal advice, regardless of the severity of the offence or whether they have even been charged.

Hundreds of solicitors have pulled out of SLAB’s nationwide police station duty scheme in response, claiming that cuts to legal aid budgets over a prolonged period of time mean they do not have the resources to deal with the increased workload the new legislation is expected to bring.

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While the board said staff from its own Solicitor Contact Line and Public Defence Solicitors’ Office would be drafted in to cover the work, insiders have claimed that they do not have the capacity to handle the work either.

READ MORE: New police rota is the final straw for unhappy legal aid lawyers

“In short, [SLAB] are not prepared for solicitors leaving the police station duty plan and do not have the capacity to deal with the problems that will arise should they do so,” a source said.

The internal issue is being exacerbated by a contract dispute with contact line staff, who are the first port of call for the police when suspects ask to speak to a lawyer and who are currently employed on zero-hours contracts.

A SLAB spokesman said the dispute will be resolved “shortly”, with all staff expected to be given new contracts that include benefits like pensions and holiday pay.

“We previously offered a guaranteed-hours contract to the contact line team but they also wanted a more wide-ranging look at their terms of contract,” the spokesman said.

“It wasn’t possible to finalise the negotiations until we completed a review of the service to take account of the impact the upcoming changes to police station advice would have on the contact line.”

READ MORE: Legal aid system must be fixed before it is too late

Meanwhile, Edinburgh Bar Association (EBA), which was the first solicitors group to withdraw from the police duty rota, reiterated its stance towards the scheme earlier this week after holding talks with the SLAB on Monday.

EBA president Leanne McQuillan said: “It remains our position that we cannot responsibly advise our members to undertake to service the police station duty scheme as we simply do not have the resources to do so.

“In little over a year, 10 per cent of our members engaged in criminal defence practice have left the field altogether. They have predominantly been female solicitors with many of those having young families. It is our belief that the impact of the measures which will be implemented on 25th January will impact most acutely on that demographic.”

EBA, whose members accounted for around 100 of the 835 solicitors signed up to the duty scheme nationwide, voted unanimously to withdraw from the it last month.

Solicitors groups in Aberdeen, the Borders, Dunfermline, Dunbartonshire, Falkirk and Moray have followed suit, with those in Dundee expected to pull out later this week.

Glasgow Bar Association (GBA) is due to discuss the matter at a meeting next week, but has not decided whether to vote on withdrawing from the scheme at this stage.

READ MORE: Legal aid system in crisis as lawyers shun duty police scheme

Despite this, GBA president Ron Mackenna said that, unlike in Edinburgh, Glasgow solicitors would not give a month’s notice to the SLAB, but would pull out with immediate effect if they decided they no longer wanted to be involved with the scheme.

That would reduce the number of solicitors on the rota by a further 200.