Law reform body's axing 'could make Northern Ireland a legal backwater'
The closure of an independent body which reviews and recommends reform of the law could leave Northern Ireland a legal backwater, the Department of Justice has been warned.
Budget cuts mean the Northern Ireland Law Commission (NILC) is set to close later this year.
"There is a danger of our law falling out of line with UK law in an unplanned way. The paralysis in decision-making at Stormont already means we are lagging behind GB in areas like equality law," said Professor Brice Dickson, a human rights specialist from Queen's University, Belfast.
The head of the English Law Commission has also written to David Ford, the Justice Minister, asking him to hold back the closure until a review of electoral law is completed.
Professor Dickson co-authored the report which led to the setting up of the NILC. He believed the Commission's functions could be carried out for a fraction of the current budget. Last year the NILC's annual budget was £952,000, of which £750,000 was made up of staff costs.
Ken Millar, the acting Chief Executive of the NILC, also believes that costs could be reduced while maintaining the role of the commission.
"If the NILC's work isn't done we risk drifting out of sync with the UK and that could have unplanned consequences. If law reviews are carried out by individual departments you risk losing continuity, expertise and the perception of independence," Mr Millar, a former Assistant Secretary in the Department of Finance, said.
In September David Ford wrote to the NILC putting the closure down to money. "Law Reform is clearly a desirable function, but it cannot be considered essential or a front line service," he wrote.
Since then Mr Ford has received a copy of a letter from Sir David Lloyd Jones - the judge who chairs the English and Welsh Law Commission - to Chris Grayling, the Lord Chancellor.
It warns that the co-operation of the NILC or a similar body is needed for UK-wide projects of electoral law reform.
Mr Lloyd Jones added: "Given the urgency with which these issues need to be resolved, I have asked the Chief Executive to seek meetings with officials of the Northern Ireland Office, the Northern Ireland Executive Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Justice."
The Northern Ireland Law Commission (NILC) is an independent body responsible for reviewing our laws to ensure they are consistent and up to date. The NILC was set up in 2007 after a general Criminal Justice Review. It matches and works closely with similar bodies in England/Wales and Scotland. It is currently reviewing our Defamation Law.