Legal aid cuts in Northern Ireland could result in innocent people being convicted, court hears
Cuts to legal aid payments for lawyers in Northern Ireland could result in innocent defendants being convicted, the High Court heard on Tuesday.
A judge was told Justice Minister David Ford's new rules may lead to the rich and powerful alone having proper access to effective representation.
Solicitors and barristers have joined forces in a bid to have the reforms declared unlawful.
Opening their case, Karen Quinlivan QC argued that Parliament originally brought in legal aid as a form of social welfare.
She said: "It was never intended that the provisions would represent a second-class service for those without means."
Mr Ford introduced the reforms to payments for criminal work in May, insisting they are necessary and just.
With the Minister facing a reduced departmental budget, he has maintained that Northern Ireland cannot continue to fund the UK's highest level of legal aid pay.
But lawyers have taken industrial action in response to the cuts, withdrawing professional services in criminal cases as part of the protest.
As a planned four-day judicial review got underway today, Ms Quinlivan insisted the right to defendants receiving a fair trial, represented by skilled and competent lawyers, is a cornerstone of the rule of law.
"Without provision for legal aid the law would simply protect those rich enough and powerful enough to afford access to the courts," she contended.
According to the barrister there must be enough lawyers operating in independent practices to ensure legal aid is provided.
"A person charged with a serious criminal offence, if they cannot secure access to lawyers of sufficient competence and skill to effectively represent them, the risk is they will be denied access to justice," she said.
"The risk is those innocent of crime will nonetheless be convicted."
Part of the challenge involves a claim that the new rules were brought into effect with no provision made for the time and skill required of lawyers in cases which cannot be properly remunerated by standard fees.
The new regulations involve significant reductions in payments without proper consideration for criteria identified in the Legal Aid Advice and Assistance (NI) Order 1981, it is contended.
The two professional bodies insist they are being denied fair or reasonable payment.
An allegedly flawed impact assessment, consultation process and statistical comparative analysis renders the rules unlawful, according to their case.
Ms Quinlivan claimed it would be wrong to let Stormont impact on primary legislation through secondary regulations.
"Neither the Department (of Justice) nor the Executive have the legal right to thwart the will of Parliament expressed through legislation," she told the court.
The case continues.