Fewer barristers will be appointed to civil court disputes in Northern Ireland if new plans to cut millions off the legal aid budget are adopted.
Solicitors for clients supported by public funds would no longer be automatically entitled to hire counsel to put their case in court if the most radical cost saving proposals are implemented.
The move by Justice Minister David Ford to reduce the legal aid budget for civil and family court cases comes after a similar initiative to hammer down the bill for criminal cases.
Mr Ford said: "While the changes will drive down legal aid costs, I am committed to protecting the principle that people should have help with their legal problems."
Legal aid expenditure on criminal cases has fallen from £60 million two years ago to £48 million in 2011/12. Over the same time period, the public bill for representation in non-criminal cases has soared from £37 million to £53 million. The most costly are often family disputes related to the custody of children.
Looming budget cuts are a key factor behind the latest plans. While the combined legal aid spend this year was over £100 million, by 2014/15 the annual allocation for legal aid will be £75 million.
The proposals to reduce the number of barristers appointed to represent legal aid-supported clients, which were outlined to members of Stormont's Justice committee on Thursday, are estimated to save between £2.8 to £4.2 million a year.
The most radical would result in solicitors having to provide justification to the Legal Services Commission (LSC) each time they wished to appoint a barrister. Alternately, limits may be applied to the range of cases in which an advocate could be hired without applying to the LSC.
There could also be restrictions on the appointment of two counsel - junior and senior - to represent a client.
Mr Ford said: "On the devolution of justice I inherited a very difficult financial situation on legal aid. I therefore set about a programme of fundamentally reforming the legal aid system in Northern Ireland so that in future, publicly funded legal services can be delivered within budget."