By Paul Thornton
TAXPAYERS will be hit with an extra £20m legal aid bill every year after the Scottish Government agreed to pay lawyers to visit suspects during police interviews.
The Law Society of Scotland confirmed that the government had agreed to an extra payment for lawyers called-out to provide legal advice.
The Crown Office last month issued new guidance on suspects’ access to a brief to bring Scotland into line with the European Convention on Human Rights.
Lawyers have welcomed the news, which comes on the heels of a Crown Office re-think on police policy for dealing with suspects which will be fully rolled-out today.
But Labour last night warned that the move could come with a £20m per year price tag at a time when public finances are already creaking.
Prosecutors told forces that they must allow access to legal advice when suspects request it – a U-turn on the previous practice, last month.
It is thought the move came amid fears that a panel of seven judges at the UK Supreme Court is set to rule that denying access is in breach of human rights laws.
Full access to legal advice for all people detained by police is to begin from today.
But the decision caused unrest among many solicitors who believed they would be forced to provide a 24-hour service without being paid any extra money.
Some feared the cost of meeting legal aid clients at police stations would have to be included in the flat £515 payment for taking on a normal case.
However last night the Law Society of Scotland revealed that the Scottish Government had agreed on the need for extra payments.
The society’s legal aid vice convener, Ian Bryce, said the government agreed to a payment scheme following discussions on Tuesday and the details would be worked out in coming weeks.
Mr Bryce said: “The Scottish Government has agreed to the principal of a payment scheme and further discussions will now place between the Government, Law Society and SLAB to negotiate the details and costs.
“The Society will continue to negotiate on behalf of its members with the Scottish Government, Scottish Legal Aid Board, Crown Office and ACPOS over the implementation of the interim guidelines which will be rolled out to all summary cases from tomorrow.
“It is vital that discussions continue with our partners in the justice system to ensure the smooth running of the justice system in the interests of the public and which is workable for solicitors who deliver the advice and representation to their clients.”
However it was warned that the scheme could cost around £20m per year to the Scottish taxpayer through already massive
Scottish Labour’s justice spokesman, Richard Baker, warned: “It is a very serious issue and it is a very difficult time in terms of public sector finance.
“I think we have to have some clear statements from ministers of how much it is going to cost in terms of a legal aid bill.
“I understand it is somewhere around £200m per year in England to allow suspects access to legal advice at the point of detention and if you do 10 per cent of that it could be £20m.
“It is clearly a significant sum.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “A number of issues are currently under discussion, including in relation to payments for out of hours work.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Legal Aid Board said: “On July 6, 2010 the board attended a meeting involving the Scottish Government, the Crown Office and the Law Society to discuss the arrangements for implementation of the Lord Advocate’s interim guidelines.
“A number of issues were discussed including out of hours payments for solicitors attending police stations and these are currently under discussion.”
Scotland had been one of the few European countries who still refused legal advice to suspects detained by police.
Article Six of the European Convention of Human Rights insists that a person is entitled to a fair trial and, it has been decided, this should extend to proper legal representation throughout the process.
But senior police officers ignored a Scottish Government promise to Brussels on solicitor access to clients for several years before the Crown Office finally acted last month.
It is feared that the move will see conviction rates plunge as more suspects will keep silent during interviews, rather than confessing.