Belfast Telegraph

Tougher rules for Legal Aid funding

A tougher system of means testing for Legal Aid could be introduced for anyone seeking to cover their court costs, it was confirmed.

Justice Minister David Ford detailed the plan at the Assembly in a discussion on the reforms of the law and order system contained in his Justice Bill.

While courts can currently grant access to Legal Aid, the legislation includes a plan for more stringent testing of an individual's ability to pay.

The measure is part of the minister's plans for reducing the soaring cost of Legal Aid in Northern Ireland.

Last year, the cost of Legal Aid reached £104 million but the Justice Bill aims to reduce this to £79 million in two years.

The minister said of the Bill: "It creates a power for a new means test for Legal Aid, will allow Legal Aid costs to be recovered from those who can afford it, and will loosen some of the restrictions on the Legal Services Commission to allow successful cases to cover the costs of unsuccessful ones.

"These powers are but one aspect of the wider reform programme for Legal Aid services as we seek to stem and reduce the apparently ever-increasing pot of money required.

"Not only will this be a key feature of our Budget 2010 programme but by targeting money at the most appropriate cases, it will actually improve access to justice for those in most need."

Mr Ford formally introduced the Bill last month. As it continued its passage through the Assembly, he again noted it was the first Justice Bill considered at Parliament Buildings since the old Stormont administration did so 40 years ago.

The minister said the new legislation's arrival was also an important milestone in the changes introduced by the devolution of policing and justice powers from Westminster to the Assembly earlier this year. The Bill is the largest the Assembly will have dealt with in its current term.

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