When Christine Grahame blurted out “why bother?” at Holyrood’s Justice Committee hearing this month, a few heads turned.
The fearsome SNP MSP, in her role as convenor, spotted something that didn’t stack up and evidently saw no reason to keep her counsel.
Moments earlier Dr Colin Lancaster, Director of Policy Development at the Scottish Legal Aid Board, had been reciting financial data. He was busy trying to justify the proposed introduction of charging for those ‘who can afford to pay’ in criminal proceedings, a principle many agree with.
But when he mentioned the fact that a core part of the proposed Scottish Civil Justice and Criminal Legal Assistance Bill may only affect three per cent of cases, Grahame seized her moment.
She erupted: “Why bother? Why bother having contribution system means testing? If such a substantial number of summary cases and such a substantial number are already on benefits, then we’re putting in place a system that seems to be saving, possibly, £3.8m. And yet we’re going to have a small saving for a lot of work.
“And what we heard earlier is there could be ramifications in some cases on justice, ramifications for human rights and civil justice, people pleading, people self-representing. It seems to me, why?”
Grahame’s questions seemed to touch a nerve as Dr Lancaster pointed out that no difference had emerged in pleading patterns in England and Wales with the introduction of a contributions-based system.
Yet Grahame again hauled him over the coals when she correctly pointed out that accused who are not convicted can recover their costs, unlike in Scotland.
It was not exactly a Mexican stand-off but the tension in the air was palpable.
And what it all boils down to, as Professor Alan Miller, Chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, was also keen to stress is that the committee needs to take stock of the likely impact the changes may have on the fairness of the justice system.
Certainly in an age of austerity the Scottish Government, like most in the developed world, is seeking to make whatever savings and efficiencies it can.
But denying financial help to those caught up in the Scottish criminal courts, a huge proportion of whom essentially have no money, might not be the smartest way of going about it.