Belfast Telegraph

Barristers targeted in legal aid bill crackdown

By Deborah McAleese

Judges are to reduce the number of court cases in which two defence barristers are paid to represent a crime suspect in the latest attempt to slash Northern Ireland's massive legal aid bill.

Currently defendants in more than half of the criminal cases in Northern Ireland are granted two defence counsel instead of one — compared to 5% in England and Wales.

New rules announced by Justice Minister David Ford on Monday will see greater regulation over the granting of two defence counsel.

Mr Ford said he believed the move would save the public purse £500,000 a year.

This is the latest reform of the legal aid system by the Justice Department.

Last year the court system was almost brought to a standstill when lawyers refused to take on new court cases in protest over reductions in their legal aid pay rates.

Mr Ford said at the time that he wanted to cut the legal aid budget from £100m to £75m over three years.

Earlier this year he also announced proposals to recover legal aid costs from wealthy defendants in Crown Court cases.

The new restrictions on the granting of more than one defence counsel could reduce the number of two-counsel cases to around 20%, from over 50%.

Under the new rules legal representatives must provide a written application to request the use of an additional counsel and the judge will be required to make and retain a written record on the decision reached.

Mr Ford said that under the new rules, safeguards have been built in “to ensure that defendants receive the appropriate level of representation while at the same time making savings to the public purse”.

He said progress has been made in reforming the legal aid system in Northern Ireland and said further reforms are planned.

Stormont justice committee member Jim Wells of the DUP said it was “about time there was a crackdown on this”.

However, SDLP justice committee member Alban Maginness previously raised concern that this was a “cost-cutting exercise” that had “nothing to do with the interests of justice”.

Background

Over the past 10 years criminal legal aid in Northern Ireland has cost the taxpayer £400m. Justice Minister David Ford has introduced a number of measures to slash the expenditure, including cutting lawyers’ fees. The latest move will cut the number of cases in which a defendant can be represented by two barristers instead of one — which occurs in over half of Crown cases in the province.

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