Legal aid review urges fewer cases with two barristers
A review of legal aid in Northern Ireland has called for a radical reduction in the use of two barristers in state-funded cases.
Paying senior and junior counsel in complex hearings is no longer affordable because of the need to maintain support for family cases and other priorities, the report ordered by the Department of Justice said.
Authors Colin Stutt and Jim Daniell said the cost of public legal aid for those who cannot afford to pay lawyers has remained stubbornly high in recent years despite a period of austerity which has seen substantial reductions in most other areas of public spending.
The document said: "The priority for achieving savings should be a radical reduction in the use of two counsel in legal aid cases.
"Funding Queen's Counsel and junior counsel together in complex cases is no longer affordable in light of higher priorities, especially the need to maintain a reasonable level of support for family cases."
The Report of the Access to Justice Review Part II made 150 wide-ranging recommendations aimed at reducing costs and improving the experience of those who come into contact with the justice system.
With the possible exception of Norway, Northern Ireland has the most expensive legal aid scheme in the world.
The review called for greater use of mediation and making court proceedings less adversarial, with more work conducted by email or phone than during public hearings.
It called for significant reform of how cases are listed before courts and said judicial reviews of decisions by the state represented an increasing area of spending.
Legal aid funding should be based on the likelihood of the court ordering the substantive relief sought and should take into account human rights considerations, the wider public interest and any judicial decision to grant leave, the document said.
Other funding criteria should ensure that only meritorious judicial reviews are funded and that judicial review is not pursued until all reasonable alternatives to litigation have been tried.
The review said in the past, the higher legal aid spend per head in Northern Ireland compared to England and Wales could largely be attributed to differing economic conditions, but there is now a growing divergence between the scope and cost of schemes.
"In a period of austerity it is very hard to argue that current levels of expenditure can be maintained."
It added: "The legal aid scheme emerging from this review will be narrower than the current scheme but access to justice will be widened in other ways.
"The scheme will be under greater control and far more sustainable in the longer term. Funding will cover a wide range of services, safeguarding the most vulnerable members of society."
Justice Minister David Ford opened a consultation on the proposals.
"We currently have a comprehensive legal aid scheme and we need to get the balance right to ensure that it is affordable into the future and that the most vulnerable in society get the support that they need."