Opinion: The key to a fair justice system

Opinion: The key to a fair justice system
Opinion: The key to a fair justice system

By Andrew Fraser

Legal Aid is probably not the first thing you consider when you think about the Justice system, but it is vital in helping thousands of people access advice and representation for their legal issues.

If you are unfamiliar with Legal aid, it is financial assistance for people who are normally unable to afford such services and access to the courts. Its primary goal is to ensure that justice is accessible for all, and to and avoid a two-tier system.

However, we see many clients come into Citizens Advice Bureaux in Scotland to ask for help in accessing Legal aid. One of the main concerns we regularly hear is that clients are struggling to find a local solicitor or advocate who will take on their case because it is being funded through Legal aid.

While the Legal Aid system is there to help, a lack of solicitors in certain geographic areas or covering certain specialist types of law means some people can be excluded from accessing the justice system.

As someone who grew up in the Highlands, hearing stories from CABs that many folks can’t access a Legal Aid solicitor because they live in a rural location irritates me enormously.

Those living in places such as the Highlands, Aberdeenshire and the Borders should have the same ability to access Legal aid and find a solicitor as those living in urban areas.

In the Highlands our CABs have also heard specific concerns about the availability of practitioners for family law and domestic abuse cases. This is really worrying, particularly when people are facing difficult personal situations and need legal advice to navigate these.

In one recent example from a north of Scotland CAB, a client was accessing Legal Aid as part of their legal issues that involved an abusive ex-partner. It took a month of phoning solicitors to find one that would take on the case. And even then, that solicitor was based in Glasgow, 150 miles away from the client. Simply put, it’s pretty shocking that such scenarios still exist in modern Scotland.

Citizens Advice Scotland believes that urgent reforms are needed to ensure the Legal aid system continues to meet user needs. We will work with the Scottish Government and relevant organisations to make sure that users are placed at the heart of the Legal aid system, which should be a key priority of any reforms that are made. We hope to see this when the Scottish Government brings forward its Legal Aid Bill, as they have committed to doing before 2026.

We believe that Legal Aid funding should support an early intervention and prevention approach with a greater emphasis placed on grant-funded services and earlier resolution of disputes. We believe this will help reduce court backlogs and deliver positive outcomes for citizens.

If we truly want our legal system to be fair and accessible to all in society, then we must make sure that Legal Aid is readily available to anyone in Scotland and that there are qualified practitioners able and willing to take on cases. This needs to happen regardless of where people live, who they are, or what their legal issue is for everyone to access justice.

Andrew Fraser is a senior policy officer at Citizens Advice Scotland.