Law chief rounds on Ford over plans to cut legal aid and courts
New plans to slash more than £20m from Northern Ireland's legal aid bill have put the Justice Minister at loggerheads with lawyers again.
The region has one of the highest legal aid bills per head in the world. Justice Minister David Ford yesterday announced proposals to subject legal aid payments to a new levy of up to 15%.
He is seeking to fast-track the controversial changes through the Assembly in an effort to tackle a £20m shortfall in the legal aid budget for the coming financial year.
Mr Ford said it was essential to curb legal aid to ensure public safety in Northern Ireland by preventing cuts elsewhere, such as front line policing.
The number of courts are also proposed to be cut from 20 to 12.
The eight courthouses which could face closure are Lisburn; Ards; Ballymena; Limavady; Armagh; Magherafelt, Strabane and Enniskillen.
Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan hit out at those plans, saying it could have a negative impact on the justice system.
Mr Ford outlined his proposals to Stormont's justice committee yesterday.
"The reality is we still have a legal aid system - on both sides (criminal and civil) - which is, if not the most expensive, well among the most expensive in the world," he said.
He added: "There are issues which have to be addressed because we have a very difficult budget to deal with on April 1.
"If we don't address legal aid it is an impossible budget for April 1."
While legal aid expenditure is projected at around £103m in 2015/16, only £82.5m has been set aside for it in the department's already under-pressure budget.
Mr Ford's department is wrestling with a £75m reduction to expenditure across the justice system.
The minister said the legal aid levy was envisaged as a short-term measure, that would likely be in operation for up to six years.
Mr Ford said the levy was an "exceptional and emergency" measure and his department had "no option" other than to introduce it.
The minister is also proposing a number of other steps, such as limiting the scope of those who can obtain legal aid for civil cases involving monetary damages, and constricting support to those who are eligible for legal aid in family disputes to the case's "key" hearings.
Mr Ford added: "If we don't do that it would simply not be possible to maintain front line public protection services."
The minister hopes to utilise the 'accelerated passage' route to push the levy proposal through the Assembly as quickly as possible, with new legislation potentially coming into operation in the summer.
"That would mean the proposal would not go through the Assembly's committee scrutiny stage."
But the minister will not be able to proceed without the backing of the Executive.
Earlier, the Lord Chief Justice said he had "significant concerns" about budget cuts to the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service.
Sir Declan said the cuts would impact on access to justice, particularly for vulnerable victims and court and tribunal users.
"I recognise that the public finances require tough, sometimes even undesirable choices to be made, but this statutory obligation is designed to reflect one of the basic governance principles in a democratic society," Sir Declan said.
David Ford has already introduced a number of measures to reduce the legal aid spend, such as the standardisation of fees in criminal cases.
While the overall cost has not shown any significant reduction from the £100-£110m bill that is consistently registered each year, Mr Ford insists it will rise to around £130m without those steps.
While additional funding has been sourced from elsewhere in the department to plug the hole in previous years, Mr Ford is now warning that there is not enough money left to bridge the gap.
While the department had been facing a 15% cut to its funding from the Executive in 2015-16, it secured additional money, which left it needing to make a reduction of under 7%.