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Legal aid cash saving plan is a flop
"We are in danger of seeing the Executive covering up and the legal-aid board simply burgeoning as a bureaucracy, not as a service-provider. The whole legal-aid system is in meltdown." - KENNY MACASKILL, SNP
Story in full LEGAL-AID reforms aimed at saving millions of pounds have been a failure and the Scottish Executive has been accused of concealing damning evidence.
The Scotsman has learned that a study completed two years ago - which has yet to be published - found that fixed fees for lawyers have failed to deliver an anticipated 10 million cut in Scotland's legal-aid bill.
The research concludes that fee-capping for summary criminal work, introduced in 1999, may in fact have increased the overall legal-aid bill by encouraging lawyers to submit thousands more claims.
The findings have led to claims of a "meltdown" in the legal-aid system, which last year cost taxpayers 148 million.
And the failure to publish the research has also prompted fresh accusations that ministers and senior civil servants are suppressing information.
A spokesman for the Executive said the research was being held "for a variety of factors", but was unable to explain what these were. However, he said researchers had been given permission to present their findings at conferences and in journals.
He also said that a brief, three-page summary of the report's findings was posted on the Executive's website last month.
Fixed fees of 300 for cases in the district court and 500 for those in the sheriff courts were introduced to cut costs by speeding up the system.
Writing about their research in the latest issue of the Law Society Journal, Cyrus Tata and Frank Stephens, from Strathclyde and Manchester universities, said that prior to fixed fees, lawyers often did not bother to claim for all advice and assistance given, instead only billing for main cases.
But they found that after the fees were introduced, lawyers were far more meticulous in their billing, making up shortfalls from individual cases by submitting more claims.
When fixed fees were introduced, 30 million was being spent a year on summary legal aid in sheriff courts. Following the introduction of fee-capping, that fell to 27 million. But by 2002, the bill had increased to 32 million with an extra 10,000 cases being funded by legal aid.
Kenny MacAskill, the SNP's justice spokesman, said the Executive's failure to release the report was "utterly unacceptable".
He added: "We are in danger of seeing the Executive covering up and the legal-aid board simply burgeoning as a bureaucracy, not as a service-provider. The whole legal-aid system is in meltdown."
Margaret Mitchell, the Scots Tories' justice spokeswoman, accused the Executive of "burying bad news".
"They have sat on this report for 18 months, putting a sledgehammer through their claims that this would be an open, accountable and transparent government."
A spokesman for the Executive said allowing researchers to present their findings "demonstrates our willingness to have the findings in the public domain". He added: "We are hoping to publish the full report very soon."
BURYING BAD NEWS?
A SUMMARY of Cyrus Tata's and Frank Stephens' findings was posted on the Scottish Executive website on 7 December.
The paper boils down to three short pages, 14 months of research, involving analysis of legal-aid board data over five years and scores of interviews with solicitors.
No press release was issued to announce the release of the long-awaited findings, which have been kept under wraps for nearly two years. The document was instead posted among hundreds of other papers in the website's "publications" section, which can be entered by clicking on a link on the home page.
It can be found sandwiched between the chief fire and rescue service inspector's annual report, and a justice department circular on "the implementation of the integrated case management process from 1 June, 2006".
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