SNP ministers have proposed making good the deficit by forcing criminal accused with a disposable income of at least £68 per week to make a contribution towards their defence costs.
However, solicitors would be asked to collect the money from their clients in cases heard without a jury, instead of the current system whereby they receive the entire fee from SLAB.
The Glasgow and Edinburgh Bar Associations are threatening to retaliate with strike action, warning they will be left out of pocket if their clients refuse to pay. They claim they would be forced to act as unpaid debt collectors.
Oliver Adair, the Law Society of Scotland’s Legal Aid convener, said: “Although we accept that all public funds are under pressure, and legal aid is no exception, £12 million savings have been made this year with the co-operation and support of the profession.
“Further savings will need to be made, but this cannot be allowed to happen at the expense of the proper functioning of the justice system, including the availability of legal aid to those who find themselves in need of legal support and unable to afford it.”
Lawyers are threatening strike action if the Scottish Civil Justice Council and Criminal Legal Assistance Bill, which includes the debt collection plans, passes its next parliamentary hurdle next week.
Mark Harrower, Edinburgh Bar Association vice-president, said: “We’ve tried to negotiate with SLAB but now all we’ve got left is the right to withdraw our labour. If we do that, then every court in the capital will grind to a halt.”
However SLAB has made clear it agrees with Kenny MacAskill, the SNP Justice Minister, that solicitors are “better placed” to collect contributions from their clients.
The board’s annual report for 2011/12, published yesterday, said £157.2 million was spent on legal aid. This was £4.2 million less than the previous year but still the second highest amount ever.
The total bill for civil cases reached £53.9 million, an increase of 36 per cent in only five years. This total included £9.1 million paid out in “very high cost cases” where the legal aid paid exceeded £50,000.
Although the total for criminal trials fell to £98 million, Lindsay Montgomery, SLAB’s chief executive, warned of a “significant gap” that will open up between spending and government funding.
“Dealing with this shortfall while protecting access to justice will be a significant challenge for us, the Scottish Government and the legal profession,” he said.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We agree with SLAB that further reforms and efficiencies will be required if, unlike England and Wales, we are to maintain the availability of legal aid across civil and criminal cases. We are working with SLAB and across the justice system to achieve these.”