03 December 2003

S2M-685 Legal Advice, Information and Representation

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-685, in the name of Cathy Jamieson, on modernising access to legal advice, information and representation, and on two amendments to the motion.

... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): The legal aid system

"must be affordable, as far as the public purse is concerned; it must give access to justice to those who need it; and it must provide high-quality legal services. Those requirements seem obvious, but in practice, they often produce a tension. Our purpose is to try to achieve a balance ... On the other hand, there is a legitimate requirement to give proper access to justice wherever that is required, although ... we do not always achieve that. The perception is that the only people who can afford to be involved in the courts or in any legal action are the very poor and the very rich."

I say to Patrick Harvie that the Executive has said that it

"would consider the business of collective action by representative bodies such as community councils. There are many occasions on which an injustice arises because legal aid is not available to such organisations ... We need joined-up legal services and a proper, strategic approach ... we have never had that".—[Official Report, 13 March 2002, c 10194-95.]

I was delighted to see Gordon Jackson here—although he has just departed. His words are always informed. That is why almost every word that I have said up to now has been from his speech on this subject on 13 March 2002—20 months ago. Unlike on 15 November 2001, when he croaked, "My voice has gone," I was looking forward with some anticipation to hearing his first speech in this session of the Parliament.

I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests, which shows, of course, that I am not a lawyer, which is perhaps unusual for someone who is taking part in this afternoon's debate. Nevertheless, many of my constituents arrive at my surgeries in the hope that I will give them legal advice. I share my extremely limited legal experience with them—much of it is saloon-bar gossip, which is probably not worth very much—but I am always careful to tell them not to rely on my advice, but to consult a lawyer or go to our citizens advice bureau, which is excellent.

However, in my constituency, people can be an hour and a half's drive away from the single citizens advice bureau that operates; they can even be out of reach of it by bus.

What all those people share with me is a concern about costs; they are especially concerned about having to give up cases because of runaway costs. The lawyer on my right—Christine Grahame—has whispered in my ear that it is possible to obtain interim costings and to find out how costs are developing. That is fine; it tells someone that they are going to have to stop because they cannae afford to go on. However, the reality is that, once one has started a legal action, to stop it might weaken one's position—one can end up in a much weaker position than one would have been in if one had never taken action in the first place.

Miss Goldie: I have an important point of information. I have tried to resist the temptation to defend the legal profession against charges, but I must say that no responsible lawyer would ever advise a client to embark on litigation without first obtaining the fullest explanation of what the foreseeable costs could be and discussing with the client how those costs could be met. We do a disservice to responsible lawyers if we create the impression that that is not the case.

Stewart Stevenson: I accept entirely what Miss Goldie says and I thank her for what was a valuable and useful point. However, in a contested case, the costs are not wholly under the control of my constituent's lawyer, for example. When fighting a well-funded opponent—whether in the criminal system, where the state is extremely well funded, or in the civil system, where one might be fighting a very large company—there will come a point at which the anticipated costs, on which the lawyer has provided perfectly proper advice, are exceeded.

So far, the Tories have told us absolutely nothing about automatic release of prisoners, proper accountability in our police forces and public confidence in the criminal justice system, even though those matters are so important that they had to be included in the Tories' amendment. In those circumstances, I cannot see how even the Tories can vote for the amendment and I am sure that, if they do, they will be entirely alone.

In his summing up, I ask the minister to assure us that he does not agree with his Westminster colleague Mr Leslie, who said yesterday, in a written answer on legal aid in England:

"We ... have to live within our financial allocation".—[Official Report, House of Commons, 2 December 2003; Vol 415, c 26W.]

That makes it sound as if there is an end to a demand-led system down south. We would resist that here and we want to hear that we will not be following colleagues in the south.


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