Justice Minister David Ford has sent a clear message to the Bar Council that he will not back down on his plans to cut payments to barristers in criminal cases.
In a keynote speech at Stormont yesterday, during which he unveiled a wide-ranging blueprint for law and order reform, Mr Ford insisted he was going to end the current level of legal aid payments — particularly in very high cost criminal cases “in which less than 1% of the cases consume almost 30% of the total legal aid budget”.
Mr Ford said the current system is unsustainable and that he is determined to bring it to an end.
“I will ensure that that will be the case, using scarce resources wisely... last year, more than £100m was spent on the legal aid system. Far too much of the budget is now being spent on comparatively few cases,” he said.
The Court Service and the Bar Council have been at loggerheads over proposals to cut advocates' fees, with counsel having withdrawn from a number of cases in recent weeks in protest.
Other issues that Mr Ford said he is planning to address include:
- Alternatives to custody for less serious crimes.
- A closer working relationship with Irish Justice Minister Dermot Ahern to tackle the dissident threat and organised crime.
- A levy on offenders, with cash raised put into a fund to provide support for victims of crime.
- The possible use of legal aid money to set up advice centres and legal clinics for the public.
- A consultation on sentencing guidelines to ensure a more “consistent” framework for sentencing.
Mr Ford repeated a call for measures to boost public confidence in the Public Prosecution Service (PPS). He said he intends to start discussions with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on whether the relationship the law sets down between the new Attorney General and the PPS “needs to be looked at again”.
Mr Ford also admitted that public confidence is affected by the sentences that are handed down by the judiciary and that he is therefore going to launch a consultation on sentencing guidelines.
He said that offenders and victims should expect that crimes of a similar nature, committed in similar circumstances, should attract broadly similar sentences.
The Justice Minister also said that later this month he will announce the membership of the panel to lead the review of prisons, starting at Maghaberry jail.