THERE is just one day to go until controversial new rules that have seen hundreds of solicitors shun the Scottish Legal Aid Board’s (SLAB) police station duty scheme come into force.

While lawyers across Scotland are still pulling out of the scheme - with those in Dundee, Oban and Stranraer the latest to withdraw - members of the country’s two largest bar associations have come together to try to find a more co-ordinated way of articulating the profession’s frustrations.

Top of the list of priorities discussed at a recent meeting between Edinburgh Bar Association (EBA) and Glasgow Bar Association (GBA) was the prospect of forming one nationwide body, which rather than acting as a protest group would seek to negotiate with the Scottish Government and SLAB on its members’ behalf.

As one EBA member who attended the meeting said: “It is hoped that something like that might present a united front and get a better in-road into SLAB and the Government.”

Currently only the Law Society of Scotland is able to make the profession’s case to the Government, with one GBA member saying that the criminal defence community is “not convinced that’s the best idea” because the society “tends not to get involved in these disputes”.

The main concern for criminal defence lawyers - and the driving force behind the police-duty protest - is the amount of funding available for legal aid work, with many firms reporting that low rates make it impossible for them to recruit. That in turn makes it difficult for them to honour their commitment to services like the duty scheme.

The rules coming in tomorrow will give everyone brought in for police questioning the right to legal advice, as opposed to just those being formally interviewed as is currently the case.

Over 200 private practice solicitors have pulled out of the scheme in response, citing the expected uptick in the amount of work and what they see as a refusal on the part of the Government to look at increasing legal aid fees as the reason.

“This whole dispute has been caused by the Government’s attitude,” said one Glasgow-based lawyer. “They don’t seem to have respect for the work we do.”

Despite this, there are signs that the duty-scheme protest has caught the Government’s eye, with officials agreeing to meet with the convenor of the Law Society’s criminal legal aid committee, Ian Moir.

He said the meeting will aim to “see if [the Government] will provide additional resources to help resolve the issues arising both in regard to police duty and more widely from decades of underfunding across the board”.

“I would hope that we can reach an agreement whereby the integrity and quality of the system can be preserved whilst at the same time ensuring the citizens of Scotland get effective delivery of the rights that they have and that legal aid suppliers can operate sustainable businesses,’ Mr Moir added.

At the same time the SLAB, which is planning to cover the gaps in the police station rota with its own directly employed solicitors, will work with the Government to try to reform how the police and court rotas operate.

“Given the action taken by solicitors in some areas, it is vital there are arrangements to provide advice to those in custody and appearing in court which the justice system can depend upon,” a SLAB spokesman said. “This work will start immediately and will include reviewing conditions for entry [to the duty schemes] and allocations.”

In the meantime the EBA and GBA will plough ahead with plans for a Scottish Bar Association because, as one member said, “the more voices heard on our behalf the better”.