Legal aid cut clears first hurdle
A proposed cut to the number of people eligible to claim legal aid in Northern Ireland has cleared its first Stormont hurdle.
Justice Minister David Ford is poised to push ahead with the controversial move for civil cases after a public consultation on the plan.
The change to the means-testing criteria will see the proportion of the population eligible for public funding reduced from around 43% to 35% - a move estimated to shave £2.5 million off the multimillion-pound annual legal aid bill.
The eligibility rate would still be much higher than the 28% in England and Wales.
Certain protections will be incorporated into the changes, such as consideration for pensioners who might have significant assets in the form of property, but limited income.
The proposal is one of a number of measures Mr Ford is planning in an effort to cut more than £20 million off the £50 million a year civil legal aid bill, but is the first that will reduce the number of people eligible to claim.
Others steps include restrictions on the number and seniority of counsel allowed to appear in certain cases.
The minister has already taken contentious steps to make savings with criminal legal aid - which also costs about £50 million a year. While he has made not yet made changes to the looser eligibility criteria for defendants in criminal cases, such action is being considered by department officials.
The minister's reform of the legal aid system has come in for heavy criticism from members of the law profession, who claim the fundamental right to good representation is being undermined.
Mr Ford will outline full details of the proposed new income thresholds to gain civil legal aid to members of Stormont's justice committee next week.
"We have had to look at the issue of eligibility on financial grounds as part of the reforms we are doing," he said today.
"We are nearly the end of a consultation process which will see us potentially reducing the proportion of the population who can benefit from legal aid slightly but it will be significantly higher than is the case in England and Wales."
He added: "We are also looking at the issue of the levels of representation, whether you need a barrister as well as a solicitor in the lower courts, whether you need a senior counsel as well as a junior barrister in some of the higher courts.
"Those are the kind of issues where we believe significant saving can be made while still allowing people to be properly represented. One of the other issues we are seeking to do is to build on things like informal mediation to ensure that cases don't always have to go into an adversarial court system. That way people can get justice without having to have a lengthy, expensive process."
Earlier today, inspectors said the body that administers the annual £100 million in legal aid payments to civil and criminal lawyers needed more powers.
While inefficiencies within the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission (NILSC) need tackling, only a radical beefing up of its ability to decide if funding is granted will deliver the "step change" needed to make the system more accountable, the Criminal Justice Inspection NI team found.
At present, judges decide whether defendants in criminal cases meet the criteria to obtain legal aid.
Though the NILSC makes initial funding decisions in civil cases, these often go to a panel of lawyers on appeal, taking the final decision out of the commission's hands.
Legal aid costs in Northern Ireland are substantially higher than elsewhere in the UK.
The cost per head of population was more than £56 in the last financial year, while in England and Wales it was less than £36.
The minister is set to bring the NILSC more under the control of his department by turning it into one of its agencies, rather than its current status as a non-departmental public body.
But the chief inspector at Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI), Brendan McGuigan, whose team examined governance within the commission, said a more radical overhaul of the body should be considered.
Mr McGuigan said it was unfair that the commission was supposed to be accountable for its budget when it had little control over how the money was allocated.
"The NILSC, operating in its present format, is unable to meet the expectations of oversight bodies, including elected representatives, in relation to the cost of legal aid due to its lack of control over the granting of legal aid and current legislative restrictions," he said.
"The long-term aim therefore should be to have in place a new legal aid body which has overall responsibility for the granting of all legal aid."
It is understood such a radical move is not on the radar of the Department of Justice.
Responding to the report on the NILSC, the Law Society of Northern Ireland, which represents solicitors in the region, said a fundamental review of processes and procedures within the justice system could deliver cost savings.
Law Society president Richard Palmer said cuts to legal aid spend should be suspended pending the outcome of such an exercise by the Justice Department.
" We believe there are efficiencies and savings that can be made which will result in a reduced legal aid bill," he said.
"The society is meeting with the Minister for Justice shortly and shall be pressing the minister to take forward the review the society is seeking.
"In the meantime, the proposed cuts to legal aid expenditure should be suspended to allow a full evidence-based policy review and procedure review.
"The current proposed cuts to criminal and civil legal aid put the cart before the horse.
"The department must take responsibility by fundamentally looking at processes in order to make the system more efficient, thereby resulting in significant savings to the legal aid fund."