Lawyers embroiled in a bitter dispute over legal aid fees have shared in almost £1.3m from the public purse over the past three years.
Hundreds of solicitors are threatening to boycott cases involving alleged sex offenders in a dispute over legal aid that has been condemned as “shocking and disgraceful” by Jack McConnell.
However, figures obtained from the Scottish Legal Aid Board show that the firms of the leading legal figures involved in the dispute are benefiting handsomely under the current system.
The firm run by Vincent McGovern, president of the Hamilton Bar Association, received more than £450,000 between 2003 and 2005.
McClay & Co, a company set up by Gerard McClay, president of the Glasgow Bar Association, received £345,000 over the same period.
Graeme Runcie & Co, run by Graeme Runcie of the Edinburgh Bar Association and a member of the Law Society’s legal aid solicitors committee, claimed £275,000. A firm run by Oliver Adair, the committee’s convener, pocketed £200,000.
The scale of the payments has angered some politicians, who accused lawyers of putting public safety at risk by threatening not to represent alleged sex offenders.
“Some firms are clearly making an awful lot of money and while I accept some of the smaller firms may have a point, it is no excuse for putting the public at risk,” said Elaine Murray, Labour MSP for Dumfries. “It appears as if the legal profession is targeting the general public.”
The lawyers claim that ministers have broken their promise to revise legal aid payments that have remained unchanged for 14 years.
They are targeting sex offence cases because people accused of such crimes are not allowed to cross-examine witnesses in court, so without a defence agent, trials cannot go ahead. The Glasgow Bar Association led the campaign and was soon backed by the Edinburgh, Hamilton and Dumbarton bar associations.
Last week Falkirk, Aberdeen, Stirling, Lanark and Dumfries, among others, joined the protest.