Yearly, as SLAB publishes its annual report on legal aid expenditure, the press likes to highlight the highest paid individuals and firms from the criminal legal aid budget. The legal aid budget is rightly a matter of public comment as it involves public money, but even though some individuals earn at the higher end of the scale, most do not. Legal Aid is a very bureaucratic system and since it went online most of the bureaucracy falls to be dealt with by the firms applying for legal aid on behalf of their clients. This work is not paid for and has no doubt saved the scheme a sizeable sum since its introduction. The wider point, though, is whether the public treasures legal aid or begrudges its cost? The Law Society of Scotland has published a poll, conducted for it by Ipsos MORI, in which 83% of the public polled (n1000) expressed concern that if the legal aid budget is cut, the poorest members of society would be worst affected, 81% agreed that legal aid is a price worth paying for, regardless of cost, and only 10% thought that legal aid is a waste of public money. There are some important changes to the whole justice system under contemplation at present and it is vital that the public is engaged with these, and doesn’t perceive the debates as ones in which legal experts are simply trying to preserve their own self-interest. This small but significant survey, in which legal aid is identified as something of a national treasure, offers evidence that principles of justice are, in fact, highly valued in society. The report is available here
The Scottish Legal Aid Board and Scottish Prison Service have joined forces to enable solicitors to consult with their clients in prison using video conferencing. A pilot in just two prisons has been extended to six prisons and will involve 25/30 solicitor firms. The pilot will run for three months from October and will then be evaluated to see if it could be rolled out more widely. Details of the pilot can be found here – http://www.slab.org.uk/providers/mailshots/newsfeed/Videoconferencing
A group of charities representing children and young people has asked the Scottish Government to reconsider the issue of the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland. Although we have raised the minimum age for criminal prosecution to 12 years, criminal responsibility, and thus the potential to acquire a criminal record, starts at age 8.
Scotland therefore has one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility worldwide as elsewhere in the world the age ranges from 6 (in Mexico) to 18 (in Columbia).
One study looked at 90 countries and calculated the mean average age of criminal responsibility as 12.5 years. Of the 90 countries only 12 had a lower age of criminal responsibility than in Scotland (excluding 4 that have no stated minimum). The UNCRC has previously recommended that the age should be raised both here and in England and Wales (where it is 10 years). Campaigners suggest that the current Criminal Justice Bill presents an opportunity for the Scottish Government to address this issue.
Dinah Aitken, SCCCJ.
I was recently fortunate enough to be invited to Lithuania by a voluntary sector organisation based in Kaunas which works with prisoners and released ex-offenders. During this visit I was able to visit a number of prisons, talk to volunteers, inmates and staff and address members of the Govt.
It came as quite a shock to find an EU member state in which the prison conditions and facilities were so poorly funded and where prospects for released prisoners are so negative (avg. spend is 1.5 euros per day per prisoner for everything). However, the real lesson comes from the story of the voluntary sector which attempts to improve things by doing simple stuff like purchasing bags of cement or plaster so that prison inmates can repair their rooms, or building showers or kitchen areas in the women and children facility. Volunteers buy these materials from their own income as well as providing skills and educational training where they can. Their story is that the public attitude towards those who offend has changed little since the days of communism where a criminal offence was seen as betraying the state, and there is little or no public awareness of something which is seen as the responsibility of that state. In fact they became so used to people effectively disappearing that today someone going into prison in Lithuania is likely to be unemployable on release, highly likely to have no accommodation or supportive family network and stands a high probability of re-offending within days. Suicide rates are high and many who leave prison leave the country not as economic migrants but as virtual deportees.
Because there is so little public sympathy the government apparently devotes very little time to addressing conditions or considering the need for improved facilities, and are able to do so with comparative impunity because the offending community has been effectively demonised as non-citizens. They do not see it as a priority at a time when building their economy is paramount and the result is evident in lack of investment or concern.
Of course we in the UK can bask in our excellent reformist history, which has seen conditions in prisons vastly improved, and a sense of public interest underpinning a rehabilitative ethos which allows the not inconsiderable criminal justice expenditure which we enjoy. Not for us the cynical demonising of social groups as scroungers or non-citizens so that we can avoid any responsibility for the welfare of those less fortunate or able to cope than ourselves. It is difficult to conceive of a situation such as seems the case in former Eastern Bloc countries ever emerging here. Or is it?
Image: By User:SKopp (Own work) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons