Northern Ireland's legal aid bill to exceed budget by £40m despite David Ford's vow to slash spending
Northern Ireland's spiralling legal aid bill is set to run £40m over budget this year – despite Justice Minister David Ford's pledge to slash spending.
The final expenditure could hit £116m – 54% more than was originally forecast.
The predicted overspend is revealed as the body which represents solicitors claimed the legal aid budget is being mismanaged, because they are working to unrealistically low targets.
In a hard-hitting speech, the president of the Law Society will warn that officials are routinely failing to accurately forecast the cost of legal aid spending which they have authorised but not provided for, and are misleading the public over who is to blame when it overruns.
"I say that it is unacceptable to us and to the public that those who mismanage the legal aid budget or who fail to set aside funds to meet the costs of work which has been completed use this very ineptitude to complain about a spiralling legal aid bill," Michael Robinson is expected to tell delegates at the society's annual dinner in Belfast tonight.
Mr Robinson is also expected to accuse Justice Minister David Ford of "a slash and dash approach" over planned cuts to the legal aid budget. In a thinly-veiled threat, Mr Robinson will say: "The Law Society will not and cannot stand by and simply watch the assault on the network of community legal service firms."
In 2011, lawyers launched unofficial strike action and refused to take on new cases after Mr Ford cut their pay in criminal cases.
Legal aid is the system where the government pays the cost of lawyers for those who cannot afford legal representation.
It costs over £100m every year in Northern Ireland. We continue to be the most expensive part of the UK for legal aid.
The Belfast Telegraph has previously revealed how an additional £20m is needed each year to pay lawyers and court costs because the Legal Services Commission – the body which administers legal aid in criminal and civil cases – exceeds its budget.
In this financial year the overspend is expected to be £41m.
This is partly down to the rising cost of legal aid coupled with the reduction in the budget ordered by Mr Ford for criminal cases.
In his speech tonight, Mr Robinson is expected to lay the blame at the feet of the Legal Services Commission and Department of Justice officials for routinely underestimating the budget.
He will say: "This financial year the set legal aid budget is once again insufficient to meet work already commissioned and completed, this time by some £41m.
"It is time to say it is not right to mislead the public about the mismanagement and ineptitude of others.
"Year after year, we hear of crises in the budget blamed on lawyers taking public money when the real story is that the system has failed adequately to foresee or forecast the cost of expenditure which it has authorised but not provided for."
Mr Ford is planning a fresh round of cuts to the legal aid budget, with some £20m to be stripped from civil cases.
But Mr Robinson accuses Mr Ford's department of "a slash and dash" approach to legal aid budgets.
"The department resembles a doctor entering an operating theatre with a blindfold and a sharpened scalpel," he will say.
"The department is blind to what it is doing. The prognosis for the patients who are our clients and our member practitioners is extremely poor."
STORY SO FAR
Proposals to slash Northern Ireland's £100m-plus legal aid bill by £14m a year were announced by Justice Minister David Ford in August. The plans are set out in a consultation document and include the introduction of standardised fees for lawyers in civil legal aid cases. The move is the latest in a series of reforms aimed at cutting the annual civil legal aid budget by £20m. The measures are intended to bring Northern Ireland into line with England and Wales but will put Mr Ford at loggerheads with the legal profession.