23 June 2005

S2M-3012 Legal Aid Reform

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 23 June 2005

[THE DEPUTY PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]

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Legal Aid Reform

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-3012, in the name of Cathy Jamieson, on legal aid reform.


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Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Well, this is like being back in school. I thought that the exams were over, but here we have a question paper with 40 questions on it. Unlike in most school exams, though, it appears that we are required to answer all 40 questions. I will return to the consultation document in a minute or two.

I thank the minister very sincerely indeed for giving MSPs the opportunity to discuss the lives of a group of people—namely, lawyers—who are considerably less popular than even we are. In the States, anti-vivisectionists who campaign to stop the use of rats in laboratories have said that they have no objection to lawyers being used instead, as there are more lawyers than rats and the lawyers are less popular.

That said, let me be absolutely candid in saying that my personal experience of lawyers is that they are impeccable. In my business life, when I worked in the bank, I found that the lawyers with whom I had to draw up contracts were, frankly, the best people to deal with, because they came back rapidly and they responded to my needs. In my civil life, my personal, family lawyer is disappointed to have been moved down from his previous position at the top of the Scotland Against Crooked Lawyers list to the halfway point. I have known him for 50 years and I think that he is a great guy. Even though he is a Tory—and therefore I fundamentally disagree with him politically—he has served the needs of my father, my mother, myself and my siblings. Lawyers fulfil a key role in our society and, by and large, they do so well. They have a public relations problem, but it is not my job to fix that one way or the other.

One interesting little thing might be derived from Kenny MacAskill's contribution, if I may reinterpret some of what he said. It was said yesterday that it costs the United Kingdom £37 million to have the royal family. Of course, prosecutions are made in the name of the Crown—we have the Crown Prosecution Service and, in Scotland, the Crown Office—because the monarch used to be the source of justice. King Solomon was asked to decide who was the mother of a child, and he said, "I will divide this child." Of course, one mother—the real mother—stepped forward and said, "Don't! Give it to the other woman." Justice was served by going to the king. Kenny MacAskill's call for an individual who could resolve small criminal issues as well as civil issues would return us, perhaps, to a tradition that is thousands of years old. I suspect that he did not have that in mind, but nonetheless I ask him to consider, when making his speeches, how others, including myself, might interpret them.

There are sources of legal advice other than lawyers. As an MSP, I find that I almost never have a surgery without saying to somebody, "My experience suggests that this is likely to be how the law works, but if you want to act on it, don't take my word for it. I'm not a lawyer. You'll have to see a lawyer." I suspect that that is true for other members, too. Many people come to see MSPs with legal problems, because they have already paid for us. We are on the public purse and there is no price to pay at the door.

The CABx are excellent organisations, but there are not all that many of them in the north of Scotland. I have one in my parliamentary constituency, but where I live is more than an hour's travel away from it, and many of my constituents are not nearly so well off in that regard. The minister has indicated a willingness to open her mind and the minds of her colleagues in the Executive to new ways of looking at things, and I very much welcome her willingness to use, as it were, barefoot lawyers.

Let us consider the consultation document. Our amendment turns on the document and on what we would wish to do in the longer term. The document contains 40 questions. Who is going to answer the questions? It will be the people who select themselves to do so and choose to respond to consultations—the usual suspects. If we open up the document, we discover that it is not immediately accessible to the general public and laymen, because it does not have a codified explanation of the terms that are used. Almost all of them are explained at some point in the text, but question 13 refers to

"an enhanced rate for solicitors undertaking civil A&A work".

That is fine, but where is "A&A" defined? It is defined on page 4, right back at the beginning of the document, embedded in a footnote. Like many consultation documents, the document is designed for those who already know the system and who are probably already interacting with the Government on public policy formulation.

The commission would be a different animal. It would have to be proactive and to go out and look at what there is elsewhere in the world. It would have to talk to ordinary people who have had life-changing experiences of the legal system, civil or criminal.

Miss Goldie: Will Mr Stevenson give way?

Stewart Stevenson: I am really running out of time. I would have accepted an intervention had it been made earlier.

Talking to ordinary people is one of the things that a commission can do. It will take longer—and we must not avoid making changes while it is doing its work—but if we do not have it, we will be back here in five years' time making further changes to the legal aid system. We are quite content to support the Executive's motion—with which there is no problem; we simply think that it can be added to.

There are things that we could do that might lower the cost of law in Scotland. For example, codifying the legal system would make it more accessible. That would be a long-term project, because the law is scattered all over the place. I am not saying that that proposal is SNP policy, and certain lawyers are not necessarily in favour of it. The point is that we must think radically because we have a serious problem. If we do not engage and consider such possibilities at this stage, we will not make the progress that we need to make.

Justice is not delivered in a court; it is delivered when victim and defender are reconciled to each other's actions and their effects. We can use lawyers to deliver justice, but we can often deliver it without them.

I support my colleague's amendment.


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