Belfast Telegraph

Lawyers slam David Ford's plan to cut legal aid budget

BY CHRIS KILPATRICK

Lawyers have accused the Justice Minister of 'getting his sums wrong' regarding plans to slash soaring legal aid expenditure – already the highest in the world.

Northern Ireland has the world's most expensive legal aid budget relative to size of population. Legal aid paid out in criminal and civil court proceedings is estimated at £100m a year.

Having already implemented measures to reduce legal aid spending on criminal cases, David Ford has turned his sights on civil proceedings.

Richard Palmer, president of the Law Society, said Mr Ford could not continue to cut costs without addressing deficiencies within the justice system.

He said rather than slash budgets, a root and branch approach to tackling the cost is required.

The current annual outlay is coming in at around £25m over the £75m budget.

"Our consistent message has been that we feel this is putting the cart before the horse," said Mr Palmer. "What is required here is a fundamental review of the entire justice system to see where efficiencies lie within that system. We are constantly being pilloried for legal aid expenditure exceeding the budget.

"But that is in the context of the department having consistently got the budget wrong for the last number of years.

"It's very easy for them to talk about over-expenditure – they are getting the forecasting wrong. We can't be blamed for that."

Much criticism of Mr Ford's policy centres on the impact reforms to the cost of legal aid would have on the public's ability to access justice.

Recently Mr Ford told MLAs the current bill is "unsustainable".

According to his department, the cost per head of population here was more than £56 in the last financial year, while in England and Wales it was less than £36.

"The minister is saying Northern Ireland is more expensive than England or Wales," said Mr Palmer. "We say that is narrow and if it is the case it is because we have not had the reviews that have taken place in England and Wales to make the business more straightforward and streamlined.

"They are not like-for-like systems either."

The Law Society also disputed claims the changes would not put lawyers' jobs at risk.

Mr Palmer warned that the public stands to lose should budgets continue to be slashed.

"We say that's absolute nonsense," he said.

"The criminal budget was cut dramatically two years ago.

"We say he doesn't know what the impact would be. We say he doesn't have the information to back that up. Until somebody, somewhere does know, then these cuts have to be suspended."

He added: "The public have the right to the very best legal representation of their choice."

STORY SO FAR

Last week Justice Minister David Ford insisted multi-million pound cuts to Northern Ireland's legal aid budget would not cost any lawyers their jobs. Legal aid costs here are substantially higher than elsewhere in the UK. Mr Ford told the Assembly the legal aid bill for an average crown court case in Northern Ireland is double that of England and Wales.

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