Thousands of the most deprived people in Scotland face having to represent themselves in court as a result of a chronic “crisis” in access to legal aid, lawyers have warned.
The Law Society of Scotland have said 100,000 people living in the country’s most deprived communities have access to just 29 civil legal aid firms.
Calls for the Scottish Government to act have been backed by author and poverty campaigner Darren McGarvey who has said those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are having their “last line of defence pulled away from them”.
The analysis from the Law Society, which represents the legal profession, shows that the 139 most deprived communities in Scotland, resident to around 100,000 people, share just 29 civil legal aid firms between them. There are no civil legal aid firms at all in 122 of the 139 areas.
Of the legal firms in these areas, nearly 90,000 (87064) people are left without any local access at all.
Legal aid for civil court actions is only offered to people with a disposable income of less than £293 per month.
The Law Society has warned that people now face being forced to represent themselves in divorce proceedings, child custody hearings and immigration hearings.
The campaign has now been backed by Darren McGarvey, author of Poverty Safari.
He said: “Just imagine standing in a courtroom on your own to argue your case, up against an experienced solicitor. Now imagine that the custody of your child is at stake.
“Or a life-changing payout after an industrial accident.
“The absurdity of that proposition, combined with inequalities within the justice, healthcare, and education systems, is exactly why I am supporting the Law Society of Scotland to highlight the real issues that real people in Scotland face. Something has to change.”
He added: “Those who are already most disadvantaged are having their last line of defence pulled away from them.
“The Scottish Government has let inflation quietly chip away at legal aid fees over the last two decades – now we need to catch up.”
The Law Society have branded an £11m funding package from ministers as insufficient.
The society’s president Murray Etherington said the system was in “crisis” in July amid calls for the Scottish Government to urgently increase funding.
Mr Etherington said: “Legal aid is a fundamental part of Scottish society.
“The lack of representation available to those who need it most continues to be an unresolved issue. We have to stop looking at it as just a problem for solicitors – it is a problem for everyone.
“The recently proposed Scottish Government increase in funding may provide a short-term sticking plaster, but it won’t address the deep wounds to the legal aid system caused by a generation of underfunding.
“Without further serious action, the huge decline we have seen in the number of registered civil legal aid firms will continue.”
A Scottish Government Spokesperson told STV News: “It is up to legal firms or solicitors to offer services or to take a case on legal aid within an area, and we can’t compel them to do so.
“The decline in the number of legal aid firms reflects, in the main, long-term declines in both criminal and civil case-loads. It points to a need to innovate in the provision of access to legal services.
“The Scottish Government funds a number of law centres who provide advice and representation on issues not normally dealt with by commercial firms, as well as localised advice providers who are supported by grant funding from the legal aid fund.
“We also fund public legal services through the Civil Legal Assistance Office and the Public Defence Solicitors’ Office. All of these services can operate across a wide geographic area.
“We are committed to working closely with the profession on reforms to the legal aid system that will improve people’s access to legal services.”