Belfast Telegraph

Criminals who can pay to be billed for legal aid costs

Legal aid costs will be recovered from certain convicted criminals under new powers set to be introduced in Northern Ireland.

Justice Minister David Ford said offenders who are found to have the ability to pay after means-testing will be billed.

Mr Ford told the Assembly he was also going to consider whether a limited public defender service should be set up to work on cases not taken by private legal firms.

His plan to reshape the justice system also includes measures on how to limit the cost of cases involving the theft of low-value items. Recent trials over the theft of a bag of prawns and a pair of jeans sparked controversy.

A series of proposals outlined in an independent report commissioned by Mr Ford on improving access

to justice were laid before the Assembly.

Many of its 159 conclusions and recommendations focus on efforts to cut the legal aid bill. Proposals include:

  • The introduction of no win, no fee arrangements for lawyers in damages cases.
  • Introducing a standard fee to apply whether there is a guilty plea or the case goes to trial.
  • Diversionary measures as an alternative to prosecution for less serious first and second-time offenders.

The report will be subject to a three-month public consultation.

With regard to the recovery of legal aid, he said: “In the Justice Act, the Assembly legislated for new powers that will allow the recovery of legal aid costs from convicted defendants who can pay.

“That proposal has been endorsed by this report and I will be shortly publishing proposals for commencing those powers.”

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