A CALL has been made for changes to Scotland’s Legal Aid system to ensure it helps the most vulnerable. The alterations include extending the scheme to cover tribunal appeals against benefit decisions and court cases around debt.

The proposal comes from Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) in a submission to a Scottish Government consultation around reforming legal aid.

The charity says access to justice is being blocked for the most vulnerable people because legal aid does not cover cases such as social security tribunals and debt cases and because of a lack of availability of legal aid provision in some parts of the country.

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It says it backs a “significant shift” in resources with a focus on early intervention and prevention through better funding of free advice services to support people with legal issues and potentially prevent the need for referrals to solicitors.

Calling for legal aid to be available for benefits tribunals and court cases around debt, CAS says it backs putting the user at the heart of the system, as well as making the system more accountable and predictable.

It says the Citizens Advice Scotland network gives advice on accessing legal aid 10 times every working day.

Last year CAB advisers and volunteers made than 6000 appearances before courts and tribunals, succeeding in 85% of cases and generating what it described as millions of pounds of real gains in the pockets of vulnerable people.

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Gillian Fyfe, strategic lead for stronger communities at Citizens Advice Scotland said: “Everyone should have access to justice in a fair society. Our legal aid system needs real reform so it serves the interests of the poorest in society.

“Better funding of free advice provision would potentially save the public purse in the long run, as lay advisers could effectively triage requests rather than refer people on to solicitors.

“We accept the need for early intervention in public services in health and education – we should extend that principle to justice too. Access to justice is being blocked for the most vulnerable in Scotland because of lack of access to legal aid for certain types of cases like social security tribunals and debt cases and the lack of availability of legal aid provision in certain areas of the country.”

Meanwhile, a report has found that the cost of legal aid has dropped by nearly a million pounds. The annual report of the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) for 2018-19 puts the total cost of legal assistance to the taxpayer at £123.7 million, down from £124.4m the previous year, with around 202,000 grants. There were 5500 fewer non-jury criminal legal aid applications than in 2017-18, with costs down £2.1m, while an additional 950 applications were received seeking criminal legal aid for jury cases.