Covering business in the parliamentary chamber as well as individual committees and cross-party groups from the last fortnight
13.11.12: Scottish Civil Justice Council and Criminal Legal Assistance Bill: Stage 2
Members of the Justice Committee last week elected to reject a raft of amendments to the Scottish Civil Justice Council and Criminal Legal Assistance Bill, including a change in the way client contributions are to be collected.
Under Scottish Government reforms of the legal aid system, a minimum contribution level for criminal legal aid is to be set at £68 per week of disposable income with solicitors expected to collect contributions from clients in summary cases instead of the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB).
Amidst a protest by 200 lawyers outside the Scottish Parliament over the proposal, Margaret Mitchell (Conservative) moved a series of motions seeking to alter the arrangement that was voted down by a majority of sitting MSPs.
Mitchell said: “SLAB is best placed to determine and collect legal aid contributions. It has a 95 per cent collection rate in civil legal aid cases, and therefore it already has the apparatus and collection procedures that are required to carry out large-scale collections of contributions.
“SLAB was established by statute to administer legal aid funds. It therefore seems frankly preposterous that the Government proposes that private business should determine and collect such a large percentage of legal aid contributions.” Appearing before the Committee, Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskill said solicitors are “much better placed” to carry out the role that in turn would allow a degree of flexibility for the client when it comes to collection arrangements.
MacAskill added: “As stated in my response to the committee’s Stage 1 report, I do not consider it unreasonable to expect a solicitor to collect his or her fees directly from the client who is being provided with legal assistance, nor do I consider the collection of fees to be anything other than a routine part of business for most, if not all, law firms.
“I know that solicitors have lobbied hard to have removed from the Bill their responsibility to collect from their clients their fees in summary cases and instead to place that responsibility on the Scottish Legal Aid Board. The amendments provide not only for that transfer but for the transfer of responsibility for the determination of contributions to the Scottish Legal Aid Board.
“I repeat that the Bill proposes evolution, not revolution. Solicitors have been responsible for the assessment and collection of advice and assistance contributions since the Legal Advice and Assistance Act 1972. The Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 1986 added the concept of advice and assistance by way of representation—ABWOR—for which solicitors collect contributions. Of course, in the case of privately paying clients, solicitors collect the entire fee from their clients. There has been no complaint that solicitors have been acting as “unpaid debt collectors” over the 25 years since the 1986 Act came into force.” Amendments put forward by Jenny Marra (Labour) calling for the contribution threshold to be removed from the text of the Bill and for the role of a new Scottish Civil Justice Council to be strengthened – via a statutory duty to consult on changes to the rules of court – also failed to gain traction.
08.11.12: The Road to Recovery
Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs, Roseanna Cunningham, reiterated that methadone is “only one of a number of treatment options that are available” during a Scottish Government debate on Scotland’s national drug strategy, ‘The Road to Recovery’.
The Perthshire South and Kinross-shire MSP said 90 per cent of people started treatment for their drug problem within three weeks of a referral between April and June of this year – nine months ahead of schedule.
Official statistics published in August on drink and drug-related deaths revealed the heroin substitute, methadone, was linked to almost half – 47 per cent – of 584 recorded deaths last year.
Fresh from the figures, a review of opiatereplacement therapies used to treat those with drug addiction has been commissioned with findings expected in Spring 2013.
Cunningham said: “It bears repeating… that recovery means different things at different times to different people, and decisions about the most appropriate treatment can only ever be made on an individual basis.
“That applies to methadone, as it does to every other treatment option. Does methadone reduce the incidence of drug-related deaths, blood-borne viruses and crime? We know that it does. Does it stabilise lives? Yes, it does.
“However, methadone is only one of a number of treatment options that are available. We are clear that it can be effective, but only as one component in a package of care, treatment and recovery.
“Members should remember that not all drug problems are opiate based. We know that fewer than a fifth of the 19,000 drug treatments that were started in 2011-12 were for prescribed drug treatment—including, but not exclusively, methadone. There is a tendency to assume that everyone is on methadone. That is simply not true.” Labour’s Community Safety spokesperson Jenny Marra said a “postcode anomaly” existed whereby pharmacists across the country were charging different rates to dispense the drug.
“Although we recognise the advantages that methadone brings as one part of a comprehensive drugs strategy, we need to know that public money is being spent to do more than simply strand addicts in a system that will not let all of them recover,” she told the chamber.
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie added: “Methadone is part of the solution, not part of the problem. We need to be careful about demonising the programme and the pharmacists, because we might undermine the good work that is under way.”
09.11.12: Legal Services (Scotland) Act 2010
Jenny Marra (Labour) asked the Scottish Government what progress is being made on the implementation of a regulatory scheme for non-lawyer will writers under the Legal Services (Scotland) Act 2010.
The proposal, which was consulted on between December 2009 and February 2010, would seek to continue to allow non-lawyers to provide a will-writing service, albeit protecting consumers by providing a set of regulatory rules, enforcement measures and sanctions that would apply to such non-lawyers.
Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskill said: “The Scottish Government is committed to enhancing consumer protection in this area as soon as practicable. The 2010 Act is being implemented in stages, beginning with the provisions relating to alternative business structures for the legal profession. We anticipate commencing the will-writing provisions in 2013.”