Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Justice Minister David Ford on a mission to cut lawyers’ costs

Justice Minister David Ford
Justice Minister David Ford

Justice Minister David Ford is currently attempting to introduce measures aimed at slashing Northern Ireland’s hefty legal aid costs.

Alliance Party MLA and member of the Stormont Justice Committee Stewart Dickson would not comment on Duffy’s case specifically.

However, speaking generally about the costs incurred to the public purse by legal aid, he said: “There’s ongoing work in relation to the legal aid budget and we have already seen a moving backwards in respect of that with criminal legal aid and work is ongoing in respect to civil legal aid.

“Clearly as a member of the justice committee, people have a right to be represented and they have a right to legal representation.

“At the same time it has to be on the grounds of reasonableness and what the public purse can afford.”

In 2011, lawyers across Northern Ireland launched unofficial strike action and refused to take on new cases after Mr Ford cut their pay in criminal cases. The controversial move was designed to save the public purse £18.5m a year.

Then, earlier this year, he set his sights on civil case pay for lawyers which he also hopes to slash significantly. Legal aid expenditure in Northern Ireland costs almost £60 per person, compared to £38 in England and Wales and £32 in Scotland. In the Republic of Ireland the cost is around £20.

In March, Mr Ford published proposals for consultation to save millions of pounds from civil and criminal legal aid.

Proposals outlined in the Reform of Financial Eligibility for Civil and Criminal Legal Aid consultation document include the possible introduction of threshold limits for Magistrates Courts regarding criminal legal aid, simplifying the current means tests for the three areas of civil legal aid and some ideas to how early advice and assistance could be delivered in the future.

Announcing the proposals, Mr Ford said: “Expenditure on civil legal aid has increased significantly in recent years and the current procedures need to be reformed so that, in future, publicly funded legal services can be delivered within budget. Implementing all the proposals I have published today could potentially save in excess of £3.5m annually.

“As part of my reform agenda I have already taken action on criminal legal aid which will result in a reduction in legal aid annual expenditure of some £20m.”

The minister reiterated his commitment to providing access to justice for those who do not have the means to pay legal fees. The consultation period closes on June 21.

The Law Society has raised concerns the reforms could have an adverse effect on family cases involving children, which account for the highest amount of civil legal aid payments.

Earlier this year the Criminal Justice Inspectorate warned that some criminal court cases may be held up to secure higher legal fees.

A CJI report found that at Crown Court cases solicitors got an average £1,996 when a defendant entered an early guilty plea compared to £4,635 if the plea is changed to guilty later.

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