Justice Minister David Ford will soon introduce cuts to lawyers’ pay in civil cases in a bid to slash Northern Ireland’s hefty legal aid bill.
The Department of Justice said on Friday that the minister will submit his proposals to the justice committee before the summer.
When Mr Ford introduced cuts to solicitors’ and barristers’ pay in criminal court cases in 2011 — a move predicted to save the public purse £18.5m a year — lawyers launched unofficial strike action and refused to take on new cases.
The introduction of set fees in civil cases will lead to large reductions in pay for barristers and legal firms. However, the department has not yet been able to say how much it hopes to save.
Proposals are also due to go before the justice committee to reduce the fees paid to experts used in court cases and a tightening up of financial eligibility criteria in both civil and criminal legal aid.
The Law Society has raised concerns that the reforms could have an adverse effect on family cases involving children, which account for the highest amount of civil legal aid payments.
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 per person is around £20.
Renewed concern over expenditure comes as the Criminal Justice Inspectorate warns 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.