Belfast Telegraph

Lord Chief Justice airs concerns over legal aid cutbacks

BY MICHAEL McHUGH

More people are coming to court without legal representation and may not do themselves justice, the head of the Northern Ireland judiciary has warned.

They are typically on modest incomes but fall outside the scope for publicly-funded aid which pays for solicitors and barristers for the least well-off, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said.

In a clear dig at Justice Minister David Ford's cutbacks in legal aid, Sir Declan highlighted the consequences.

"They may be so overwhelmed that they do not do themselves justice, no matter what the level of patience and understanding shown by the judge.

"There is a danger that in finding an answer to the problem of limited resources, we examine only the stark choices of having or not having full legal representation and lose focus on the other ways in which we can provide some help to those coming before the courts," he said.

Stormont's Justice Department recently proposed further cuts to civil legal aid.

A spokesman for the department said: "The levels of expenditure on legal aid are not sustainable and the justice minister's reforms will drive down the cost without harming justice."

The Law Society, which represents solicitors, has claimed the real social impact of the changes has not been outlined and warned that key areas of legal advice and representation will be closed.

Sir Declan said many who represent themselves before a judge have never been in court and that a service could be provided by newly-qualified lawyers.

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