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5 November 2014, 06:00
The legal aid system is no longer fit for purpose and needs a "root and branch change'', the Law Society of Scotland has said.
President Adam Morris said the existing system, which was set up almost 30 years ago, is "hugely complex''.
With changes having been made to Scotland's justice system, he argued the time is right for legal aid to be reformed too.
The Law Society has published a discussion paper which suggests a number of possible reforms - although it concedes not all of them will attract "universal support from the profession''.
It suggests reducing the eligibility levels for civil legal aid "to ensure that public funds are focused on those most in need'', along with introducing "affordable legal assistance loans'', which would be provided through the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) to help people with legal expenses.
Savings that are made should be reinvested into the legal aid system, the Law Society suggested, while the block fee system for criminal legal aid should be streamlined.
It also proposed that changes to the system should be used to encourage the early resolution of cases.
Mr Morris said: "The current legal aid system is almost 30 years old. In that time there has been extensive change which has resulted in a system that is hugely complex, with even highly experienced solicitors reporting that they find it difficult to navigate.
"We don't believe that the current system is fit for purpose and, with the ongoing reforms to modernise the wider court and justice system, the time is right for root and branch change.
"We need to rethink legal aid as a whole and look at where efficiencies can be made and how savings can be reinvested to ensure that people can obtain legal advice when they need it most, regardless of their status or wealth.''
The Law Society published the discussion paper days after SLAB chairman Iain Robertson warned savings would need to be made to the legal aid bill - which hit just over £150 million in 2013-14.
''This is by far the most challenging time for legal aid in Scotland since my appointment," he stated.
''The continuing pressure on public finances has led Scottish ministers to seek further savings and efficiencies in legal aid expenditure, and legal aid must play its part in achieving savings alongside all other public services.''
In its paper, the Law Society said the "legal aid landscape has changed substantially'' since being established in 1986, with the Legal Aid (Scotland) Act.
"Significant amounts of secondary legislation and guidance have created a complex system which even expert practitioners find difficult to navigate,'' it stated.
"The existing system lacks clarity, is inefficient and is administratively burdensome. It leads to unnecessary time and resources being spent by SLAB and solicitors at every stage of the process.
"At a time of reforms to modernise the wider court and justice system, our system of publicly-funded legal assistance must be rethought to ensure an effective and sustainable service.''
The Law Society said its paper is "only a starting point for discussion'', adding: "We have not made any final decisions on what would be the best way forward for legal assistance in Scotland.''
Ian Moir, convener of the Law Society's criminal legal aid committee, said: "We are becoming increasingly concerned about the real term decline in expenditure on legal assistance which has been ongoing for years.
"We believe that re-investment of efficiency savings into legal assistance can deliver savings to the justice budget, to public services, the wider economy, and add value to both clients and communities.''
Mark Thorley, convener of the Law Society's civil legal aid committee, said he hopes the paper would "generate discussion'' among solicitors and others.
He said: "We recognise that in a challenging financial climate, there are ongoing pressures on public spending and that there are no easy solutions.
"Some of the ideas included in the discussion paper may not meet with universal support, however the intention of publishing the paper is to be able to consider a whole range of options and to generate a full and frank discussion on the future of legal aid in Scotland.''