Northern Isles MSPs Beatrice Wishart and Liam McArthur have aired their frustration after receiving an “extraordinarily dismissive” response of the SNP Government after concerns were raised about issues with access to legal aid in Orkney and Shetland.
The Orkney and Shetland MSPs had reached out to the Minister for Community Safety Ash Denham to request an opportunity for local practitioners and stakeholders to set out the island experience of access to legal aid provision, ahead of planned national reforms.
Small island practices often find current funding arrangements unworkable and unsustainable in practice. This means that those involved in criminal or civil actions have to look to the mainland for legal aid solicitors, impacting on their access to justice.
In response, the Minister for Community Safety Ash Denham dismissed concerns, stating that there was “little direct evidence of specifically rural problems in accessing legal services”, and did not take up the offer to hear from those with experience in the islands.
Commenting, Shetland’s MSP Beatrice Wishart said:
“The Minister’s response is extraordinarily dismissive. We shared concerns based on real experiences in Orkney and Shetland. But the Minister in charge of legal aid appears to think that she knows better than those on the ground.
“There is an opportunity to make changes in the upcoming legal aid reforms, so that people in the islands access the same justice as they would on the mainland. For that to happen though, local experiences need to be given a fair hearing.
Orkney’s MSP Liam McArthur continued:
“Access to justice should not depend on your postcode. We know that there are disparities between what can be offered in the islands as compared to the mainland. We want to find solutions to those problems.
“The Minister, however, seems unwilling to engage. That doesn’t bode well for any future reforms.
“These issues will not go away, however, unless action is taken by government. Hopefully, in the interests of access to justice, whoever is the Minister after the election adopts a less high-handed and dismissive attitude.”