Probe into [Pounds Sterling]1m Legal Aid Abuse by Lawyers; REPORT ACCUSES SOLICITORS OF 'MILKING' TAXPAYERS' MONEY
Byline: LINDSAY MCGARVIE
EIGHT Scottish law firms are under investigation for allegedly milking [pounds sterling]1million of taxpayers' money from the legal aid system.
The probe was revealed after the chief executive of the Scottish Legal Aid Board, Dr Richard Scott, unveiled its annual report yesterday.
It emerged that Scottish solicitors and advocates earned millions more from criminal legal aid last year despite falling crime rates.
Dr Scott revealed that around [pounds sterling]1 million was spent paying solicitors who claimed legal aid funding for cases which, he said, they could have finished sooner.
The board accused law firms of flouting the system by dragging their heels when working on simple court cases.
A spokesman for the legal aid board last night confirmed that up to eight solicitors were currently under investigation by the Law Society, and that any abuse of the system would lead to reports being submitted to the procurator fiscal.
Figures revealed in the board's annual report yesterday also highlighted an increase of [pounds sterling]2.2million in the cost of legal aid for criminal cases even though the number of applications for financial help declined last year.
Now the sharp rise in the costs could lead to a crackdown on law firms who openly take advantage of the system.
Proposals have already been submitted by the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) to overhaul the current legal aid structure including the introduction of fixed fees which would set standard costs for specific types of cases, and a strict code of practice in place from October 1.
Top of the list for legal aid fees was Ross Harper and Murphy, which employed 33 solicitors in 1997-98. It was paid a total of [pounds sterling]3,518,000. Alan Siskind of the firm said it received such a high figure because of the large number of solicitors employed on legal aid cases.
George More of More and Co, which earned [pounds sterling]1,677,000 in legal aid, blamed rising costs on enormous delays in the court system.
He said: 'When we go to trial we may not get taken for some hours, and we must be paid by SLAB for that waiting. Also, procedures are becoming more complex, with video and audio interviews meaning more work for solicitors, which leads to increased legal aid fees.' Speaking yesterday at the publication of the board's annual report, Dr Scott insisted steps would be taken to reduce the spiralling costs.
He said: 'There are a number of reasons why the average cost of cases is going up. Some are because of external factors such as court dues. Others are in the hands of solicitors and the amount of time they are spending on cases.
'The board has been in discussion with the Scottish Office and the Law Society about ways we can reduce the costs.' Criminal cases accounted for the majority of the Legal Aid Board budget last year with the average case accounting for [pounds sterling]1,073. The cost of paying solicitors and counsel for criminal cases increased by [pounds sterling]2. …