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Last Updated: Monday, 1 October 2007, 15:10 GMT 16:10 UK
Legal aid bill increases to 150m
The High Court in Edinburgh
The number of cases granted legal aid was at an all time high
Scotland's legal aid bill cost the public purse more than 150m last year, figures have revealed.

The total bill was 2% up on the previous year and brought spending to the second highest ever level.

Criminal cases accounted for nearly two thirds of the total. The cost of civil legal aid increased for the first time in three years.

Donald Findlay QC topped the list for legal aid payments made to advocates, receiving 358,400 including VAT.

Glasgow-based law firm Ross Harper topped the solicitors' legal aid earnings list at 1.732m including VAT.

Top-earning solicitor advocate was Iain Paterson, of Paterson Bell Solicitors, who received 219,300 including VAT.

Last year's increased costs came despite a fall in the number of solicitors providing legal aid.

TOP FIVE ADVOCATES
Donald Findlay QC
1 Donald Findlay QC 358,400
2 Ian M Duguid QC 321,600
3 Edgar Prais QC 272,500
4 Mhairi R Richards QC 269,800
5 Paul G McBride QC 237,800

The figures were disclosed in the annual report of the Scottish Legal Aid Board.

The report coincided with new proposals from the board and the Scottish Government to change the way solicitors are paid for legal aid in summary or less serious cases.

Under the proposals there will be a "substantial" increase in payments to lawyers in the early stages of a case, with lesser increases for cases going to trial.

This is intended to save money overall, as the present system is said to favour not guilty pleas which are changed at a later stage.

The 150m cost to the taxpayer was made up of 106.6m on criminal cases, 39m on civil cases and 4.5m on children's legal assistance and contempt of court cases.

'Fairly rewarded'

Last year's increase in the cost of criminal legal aid was said to be due to higher numbers of cases, in particular a higher number of costly serious cases.

Legal aid was granted in 13,898 serious and 82,686 less serious cases, the highest-ever numbers.

READ THE ANNUAL REPORT

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Iain Robertson, board chairman, said: "To ensure that there is adequate access to justice, it is essential that there are sufficient good quality practitioners available and that they are fairly rewarded.

"Where there are gaps in private sector provision, we and the Scottish Government need to look at the best and most cost-effective ways of filling these gaps."

The report also disclosed that the board de-registered two solicitors and two firms from the legal aid register.

A binding legal agreement had also been reached to recover 1.8m of payment fraudulently obtained by one solicitor.

The lawyer, who died in 2005, had "fabricated" documents to obtain that sum from children's legal aid, said the report.

TOP FIVE FIRMS
1 Ross Harper Solicitors, Glasgow 1,732,900
2 Livingstone Brown Solicitors, Glasgow 1,672,900
3 Bruce Short & Co Solicitors, Dundee 1,634,400
4 George Mathers & Co Solicitors, Aberdeen 1,438,900
5 McCusker McElroy & Co, Johnstone 1,343,400

The Law Society of Scotland said an increase in the number of High Court prosecutions meant the legal aid budget would "inevitably" increase.

"Legal aid is essential for a vulnerable group of people who might not otherwise be able to have access to legal advice and representation," said the society's Oliver Adair.

"The importance of that should never be threatened by cost-cutting or inefficiencies in the system."

He said research also showed many solicitors did not think they would be able to provide a civil legal aid service in the coming years.

"It is clear from the research that there is a serious funding problem which is causing access to justice issues - and this needs addressed urgently," he said.


SEE ALSO
High court reforms judged success
26 Feb 07 |  Scotland
Lawyer banned from legal aid work
07 Feb 07 |  Glasgow, Lanarkshire and West
Advocates offer services for free
20 Nov 06 |  Scotland
Legal aid growth 'widens choice'
20 Oct 06 |  Scotland
Legal aid reform 'harmed justice'
20 Oct 06 |  Scotland
Agreement reached in fees dispute
07 Aug 06 |  Scotland

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