McLeish Puts Brakes on Soaring Legal Aid Bonanza for Lawyers; COURT BILLS TO BE SLASHED BY 25 PER CENT IN THE NEXT YEAR

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Byline: ELIZABETH QUIGLEY

THE Government yesterday signalled a clampdown on Scotland's spiralling legal aid budget as Home Affairs Minister Henry McLeish took a firm grip on what the taxpayer will pay lawyers.

Mr McLeish acted after soaring solicitors' fees left Scotland with one of the highest legal aid bills in the world.

Announcing the Government was taking control of the fees,he said he would slash the bill by 25 per cent in the next year.

Lawyers will no longer be paid for waiting in court for their cases to be heard or for the time spent travelling to court.

Last night lawyers and opposition politicians claimed the proposal ran the risk of creating a two tier legal system, with those on legal aid not having the same access to justice as others.

The Government predicts that the system of fixed fees for district and sheriff courts set at [pounds sterling]300 and [pounds sterling]500 will reduce the [pounds sterling]40million legal aid fees bill by more than [pounds sterling]10mil-lion.

Scotland's criminal legal aid bill has soared in the last ten years by 65 per cent and is 50 per cent more per head of population than in England and Wales.

Mr McLeish said he would root out inefficiencies in the legal aid system.

'This is the first time a government has had the determination to control something which has never been controlled. For the first time we are going to be able to control legal aid fees,' he said.

'I believe we have got a solution that works but I believe it is very tough and very radical.

'I don't think solicitors will be happy with what I'm outlining but at the end of the day I want a system that works.' The new fixed fees would replace the current system of solicitors claiming for individual pieces of work. They will no longer be paid for travelling to court or for waiting for a case to be called in court.

Instead, from April 1 this year, they will receive [pounds sterling]300 in a district court case and [pounds sterling]500 in a sheriff court case from the granting of legal aid up to 30 minutes into the trial.

If the trial goes on longer, solicitors would receive another [pounds sterling]50 in a district court and [pounds sterling]100 in a sheriff court. If it continues into a second day they will be able to claim a further [pounds sterling]50 in a district court or [pounds sterling]200 in a sheriff court.

Mr McLeish described it as a sensible step forward.

'I think this is right for the taxpayer and right for those people trying to access justice. It will serve the profession well and serve the taxpayer well. We said we were going to save [pounds sterling]10million. We are going to save [pounds sterling]10million,' he said.

And in a thinly veiled threat, the home affairs minister warned there could be further changes if solicitors tried to find ways round the new system. …