Scotland’s criminal defence solicitors are boycotting custody courts today in protest over what they say has been the government’s failure to property distribute a Covid-19 resilience fund.
The newly-formed Scottish Solicitors Bar Association (SSBA) announced last week that practitioners in Dumbarton, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Highlands & Moray and West Lothian would be taking part in today’s boycott.
The Scottish Government assigned £9m to a resilience fund but the SSBA said only £2.3m had been distributed. Of the 287 firms that applied for funding, less than a third were granted an award.
A statement calling for the government to urgently distribute the resilience fund was signed by over a dozen bar associations including Edinburgh and Glasgow. They also said that £1m was promised in December to support legal aid firms to take on trainees but ‘not a single penny’ had been distributed from the traineeship fund.
Last-minute talks were held between the SSBA and the Scottish Government yesterday. However, the SSBA said ‘no clear assurances were given’ so the boycott would go ahead as planned. ‘Vague promises will not cut it at this stage, and unless this issue is resolved further action cannot and will not be ruled out,’ the association added.
Practitioners have posted photos of gowns hanging off court railings and on empty chairs in court with the hashtag ‘Gowns Down’.
Law Society of Scotland president Amanda Millar said legal aid solicitors have felt disrespected and ignored by the Scottish Government for years. ‘When ministers announced a new £9m legal aid support package last December in response to Covid, it was hoped this marked a change in attitude and a more positive approach. Yet five months on, most of the promised money remains in a Scottish Government bank account as legal aid solicitors sit wondering if their firms will survive this week.
‘We warned government that its harsh and rigid criteria for support grants would mean money would not reach those who desperately need it. Regrettably, this is exactly what has happened. It is why so many solicitors now feel they have no choice but to act to make the government change course and amend the way firms can get financial support. Ministers need to listen and act fast.’
Justice minister Humza Yousaf said on Twitter that he gave Law Society colleagues a ‘categorical undertaking’ that all of the £9m allocated to the legal aid profession would be disbursed, which was on top of a 5% uplift in legal aid fees already enhanced.