Lawyers to boycott domestic abuse cases amid legal aid dispute

Solicitors will refuse to take on summary cases brought under section 1 of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018.

Scottish lawyers to boycott domestic abuse cases amid legal aid dispute iStock

Lawyers will boycott hundreds of domestic abuse cases amid an ongoing dispute over legal aid payments.

From May 3 most defence solicitors in Scotland will refuse to take on summary cases brought under section 1 of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018.

The legislation, hailed as “ground-breaking”, criminalises psychological abuse and coercive and controlling behaviour.

The move comes as a row between the Scottish Solicitors Bar Association (SSBA), who represent the interests of criminal defence practitioners, and the Scottish Government continues to escalate.

The SSBA say the “overwhelming majority” of its members are almost exclusively engaged in legal aid work and the recent increases, of 3% in 2019, 5% in 2021 and 5% on 1 April this year, represent a reduction of almost 50% once inflation is considered.

The government has been accused of “neglecting legal-aid for decades” and causing a 25% reduction in the number of solicitors engaged in it in the past decade.

A statement from SSBA said: “it is no longer financially viable for legal aid practitioners to take on complex cases at legal aid rates.

“Solicitors across Scotland have taken the difficult, but necessary, decision to refuse to act in summary cases where a contravention of s1 of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 is alleged.

“The 2018 Act introduced a new offence which aims at tackling coercive control. This offence is necessary to include behaviour that has not previously been criminal per se but could amount to abuse when considered in context and/or over a period of time.

“Offences under s1 of the 2018 Act are inherently complex and involve significantly more work than most summary cases.

“For example, the same fee is payable for a summary case alleging a single punch on a specific date and time as is payable for an allegation under s1 of the 2018 Act which must relate to behaviour over a period of time (which could be years) and which refers to multiple incidents.

“The fees payable for Legal Aid work are derisory. As a profession, we cannot undertake complex cases for a fixed fee rate which was set decades ago and was never intended to include such complex and lengthy cases.

“The Scottish Government has consistently ignored the profession when we alert them to the numbers leaving legal aid work and our struggle to attract and retain experienced lawyers.

“They have ignored us when we say that this has a negative impact on the diversity of the profession.

“They have ignored us when we tell them that we cannot have fair access to justice when newly qualified prosecutors routinely earn upwards of £15,000 per year more than defence solicitors at the same stage.

“They ignore us when we tell them that the profession is in crisis.

“The action we are taking is a consequence of the Scottish Government’s failure to adequately address these problems.”

Nearly 1,600 charges were reported under Section 1, accounting for close to 5% of all domestic abuse charges for 2020/21.

Defence lawyers will still take on solemn cases that go to trial with a sheriff and jury or in the high court.

The Scottish Government has been approached for comment.