The Law Society has sent out a warning to Justice Minister David Ford that drastic changes to the legal system to cut costs will create a two-tier justice system and an unequal society.
The minister has made no secret of his determination to slash the amount spent on publicly funded legal aid, saying that the current system is unsustainable, and has launched a review of public legal services.
Last year around £100 million was spent on the legal aid system —that is around 20% more expensive per head of population than in England and Wales.
Concern has been raised by the Law Society, however, that overhauling the current legal system to cut back on legal aid expenditure would see the development of two justice systems — one for the “haves” and another for the “have nots”.
Law Society president Norville Connolly said that the society welcomes any proposals to improve access to justice, but warned that improvements will not be achieved “if the primary driving force is the short-term expediency of reduced costs to the legal aid budget”.
Speaking last night at the Law Society’s annual council dinner, which was attended by Mr Ford, Mr Connolly said that such a “narrow policy” may lead to increased costs elsewhere in the system.
“There can be no effective rule of law if there is no proper access to justice. The Law Society reminds Government that denial of access to justice creates a vacuum into which others will undoubtedly step,” Mr Connolly said.
He added that legal aid provides an important safety net for those who cannot afford justice.
“Justice is not a commodity which any Government can ration. If it is not accessible to all, the result will undoubtedly be an unequal society.
“There can be no equal justice where the type of trial you get depends on the amount of money you have. We cannot have a two-tier justice system — one for the haves and another for the have nots.
“Nor can we have a system where there isn’t equality of arms, for example where the prosecution is better equipped than the defence or where a potential private citizen plaintiff without means is dwarfed by the wealth, power or influence of the opponent, whether that opponent be a Government department, private company or wealthy individual,” he said.
Mr Ford told the society that in relation to legal aid, change is both inevitable and necessary.
Mr Ford said: “It is clear that there is a widely held sense within our community that the legal aid system is not working as it should.
“Any system which has a budget of £85m but an expenditure of £104m is living on borrowed time, particularly in the current economic climate.”
He added: “While budgets have dictated that my immediate priority on legal aid reform has been to halt the dramatic growth in the cost, I don’t want our vision to be focused on budgets alone.
“The time is now right to think about the bigger question: what is our public legal aid system for? If its purpose is to ensure access to justice for everyone, then how confident can we be that it is achieving that purpose?”
Lawyers’ legal aid fees totalled almost £100m during the last financial year. The top 10 highest legal aid earning law firms were:
1. Kevin Winters & Co — £2,980,008.
2. Madden & Finucane — £1,814,920.
3. Trevor Smyth & Co — £1,639,522.
4. McConnell, Kelly & Co — £1,383,081.
5. McKenna, Sweeney, McKeown — £1,313,348.
6. McCann & McCann — £1,242,904.
7. Patrick Fahy — £1,008,501.
8. G R Ingram & Co — £936,823.
9. John J Rice & Co — £848,536.
10. Sheridan & Leonard — £835,200.