The Scottish government's decision to cut £10 million from its legal aid fund could prevent Scotland's most vulnerable people from obtaining justice in the courts, according to the country's leading homeless charity.
The SNP government's budget, which was outlined by finance secretary John Swinney on Wednesday, included a target to reduce Scotland's legal aid fund from from £136 million to £126 million – the lowest the fund has been for over a decade.
Legal aid helps people seek advice and take legal action if they are unable to afford it. Homeless charity Shelter Scotland told BuzzFeed News it was concerned the country's most vulnerable people, such as homeless people facing unjust eviction, could be denied the "essential" help they need.
"In 21st-century Scotland, justice should be available to all – not just those who can afford it," said Shelter Scotland's head of policy, Adam Lang. "Legal aid is part of an essential safety net for people who are homeless and badly housed in Scotland. By cutting the legal aid budget Scotland risks denying households the legal representation, help, and support they desperately need.
"This is particularly worrying at a time of increased pressure on local government funding, when homeless or badly housed people may struggle to get the help and support they need. What's more, any savings would likely be outweighed by the negative health implications for some of the most vulnerable in our society."
Christine McLintock, the president of the Law Society of Scotland, called on the Scottish government to abandon the cuts to the legal aid fund and said they could "seriously damage" access to the legal system for people who aren't wealthy enough to cover the costs.
"The Scottish government has set the financial target for 2016-17 at a level that is lower, in cash terms, than levels of legal aid expenditure from over 20 years ago (in 1994/95 the total expenditure on legal assistance was £132.1 million)," wrote McLintock in a statement on the Law Society website.
"[The target is] clearly unrealistic if you are trying to maintain an effective and sustainable legal aid system. Given existing figures, in order to reach its target, the government would need to cut expenditure by at least £10 million by 2016-17.
"We do not see how this can possibly be achieved without seriously damaging both access to justice and the justice system."
Paul Wheelhouse, the Scottish government's minister for legal affairs, said access to legal aid will be maintained despite the cuts and said that such access hasn't been protected in England and Wales.
"Anyone eligible who requires legal aid will receive it as it is a demand-led system," said Wheelhouse. "Comparison between years is not straightforward as we also need to take account of the level of crime, the nature of cases being taken to trial, and economic factors influencing demand for civil legal aid.
"I have already made it clear to the Law Society, as recently as yesterday, that we plan to work with the Law Society and the Scottish Legal Aid Board to review legal aid provisions and to understand factors influencing the need for legal aid, and to discuss how best to achieve a simpler and more efficient legal aid system which manages expenditure while maintaining access to justice – something that has not been protected in England and Wales."
Jamie Ross is a Scotland reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Edinburgh.
Contact Jamie Ross at email@example.com.
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