SOLICITORS have started a campaign of industrial action affecting every sheriff court in Scotland in a continuing row with the Scottish Government over legal aid.

It is understood around 800 defence lawyers have begun boycotting cases prosecuted under new domestic abuse legislation following a breakdown in talks over rates to represent alleged offenders.

They are also refusing to step in where an accused person has no solicitor and cannot represent themselves or take part in a new virtual custody pilot.

The Scottish Solicitors Bar Association (SSBA) has said it is prepared to escalate the action in the coming weeks if the Government refuses to negotiate over the amount of legal aid paid to lawyers and how rates are reviewed.

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Simon Brown, president of the SSBA, said the dispute is the result of years of static figures before an agreed increase in legal aid fees was belatedly introduced last year but then cancelled out by the effects of rising inflation.

He said the impact of the boycott on cases brought under domestic abuse legislation will begin to be felt in courts in around six weeks, and if the Government fails to negotiate then further disruptive action might be taken.

“We are refusing to take on any new cases of this type,” he said.

“If somebody appeared from custody yesterday charged with one of these offences, they would not have been represented.

“At a first appearance, they can represent themselves and they can say they are pleading not guilty, but what they can’t do is they can’t conduct their own trial.

“So about six weeks down the line, you will start to get people turning up saying they don’t have a lawyer and the court saying they can’t do a trial without a lawyer.

“The ball is very much in the Government’s court at the minute. If we get through a whole month with no contact then we will have to look at escalating matters.”

The industrial action comes after the Law Society of Scotland also opted to withdraw from discussions with the Government on the creation of a review mechanism for legal aid fees following what it termed as a “lack of progress” in two years.

Susan Murray, president of the society, said: “We understand and fully appreciate the deep frustration that has driven SSBA members to take these steps.

“Criminal defence is a fundamental part of Scotland’s justice system and the Law Society has long argued for a properly funded justice sector for the Scottish public. That means proper funding for legal aid and the criminal bar in Scotland.

“Without appropriate funding, it is ultimately the public who will suffer, particularly those who rely on legal aid to access legal representation for criminal and civil matters. This is a longstanding issue that must be capable of being resolved and for which solutions need to be found urgently.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We note the association’s announcement and would encourage them to continue to engage with us.

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“We value the role that legal aid providers play in the justice system. Despite challenging financial circumstances, we have maintained resourcing of legal aid. The Legal Aid Fund is demand-led and directly linked to application numbers, with all eligible costs met.

“An £11 million package that increased fees for legal aid lawyers and supports the court recovery programme was implemented in April 2023. This brings the total additional funding to legal aid providers to £31 million since April 2021.”