Ford poised for a new battle in bid to slash £14m off civil legal aid bill
Proposals aimed at cutting Northern Ireland's hefty legal aid bill by £14m a year have been announced by the Justice Minister.
The plans are set out in a consultation document and include the introduction of standardised fees for lawyers in civil legal aid cases.
The move is the latest in a series of reforms aimed at cutting Northern Ireland's annual civil legal aid budget by a total of £20m.
The measures are intended to bring Northern Ireland into line with England and Wales but could put David Ford (below) at loggerheads with the legal profession once again.
In 2011, lawyers across Northern Ireland launched unofficial strike action and refused to take on new cases after Mr Ford cut their pay in criminal cases. The controversial move was designed to save the public purse £20m a year.
In the decade between 2000 and 2010 the costs for publicly-funded legal representation in civil courts rocketed from £11.4m to £36.9m.
The latest round of proposed reforms were set out in a consultation document entitled Civil Legal Aid Remuneration, details of which were made public yesterday.
"Spending on civil legal aid needs to be reduced overall by approximately £20m annually and the proposals in this consultation mark a further step in my reform programme, and it is envisaged they will yield annual savings of approximately £14m," Mr Ford stated.
"I have already taken action on criminal legal aid regarding remuneration fees, which resulted in a saving of approximately £20m annually, and it is therefore appropriate to consider introducing similar proposals to the area of civil legal aid.
"The introduction of a standardised fees system has three key benefits: it brings greater financial control to the cost of civil legal aid where governance could be enhanced; it enhances the capacity both in the Commission (Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission) and the department to forecast civil legal aid expenditure in future years; and it reduces running costs for the legal profession and the Commission."
In June, Mr Ford was urged to look again at the sums being paid to lawyers after it emerged more that £100m was handed over in legal aid last year.
Solicitors received over £68.4m, with the top 100 firms taking in more than £48.5m.
Legal aid barristers' fees were £33.3m, of which payments to the top 100 amounted to just under £21m.
Paul Givan, chair of Stormont's justice committee, said the expenditure raised serious questions regarding value for money.
"Is taxpayers' money being used properly?" he said when the figures were published.
"Very clearly there is a course of action for the Justice Minister to look again at fees being paid both in terms of criminal legal aid but also civil legal aid costs."
The consultation process on the latest reforms will end in November.
Legal aid is the system whereby the State pays the costs of lawyers for those who cannot afford them. The legal aid budget is currently £83.5m per annum, reducing to £75m by 2014-2015. In the financial year 2011-12 the total spend was in excess of £105m and in 2012-13 in excess of £107m. The civil legal aid bill was £50m for 2011-12. David Ford aims to cut the civil legal aid bill by £20m per year. The Law Society has raised concerns the reforms could have an adverse effect on family cases involving children, which account for the highest amount of civil legal aid payments.