Northern Ireland’s lawyers are gearing up for another battle with Justice Minister David Ford over multi-million pound funding cuts, with some threatening new strike action.
A senior Department of Justice official warned yesterday that Government currently has “no control” over what lawyers are charging in civil cases paid from the public purse.
In some instances, barristers have been earning up to £100,000 from the legal aid budget for a single civil case, the department’s deputy director of public legal services, Robert Crawford, told Stormont’s justice committee.
It is understood that in the past year one lawyer was paid an estimated £900,000 for civil legal aid work.
Mr Crawford said that a “bad system” is currently in place and is overdue reform.
The justice department intends to cut annual legal aid bills by £20m and proposes to do that by reducing lawyers’ pay, restricting the number of barristers allowed to work on civil cases and reducing the use of expert witnesses.
Last year lawyers launched unofficial strike action and refused to take on new cases after the Justice Minister cut their pay in criminal cases.
Mr Ford has now decided to focus on civil legal aid — which is used in care proceedings involving children, bail applications, domestic violence proceedings, adoption, divorce, bankruptcy, injunctions and personal injury cases.
Civil legal aid currently costs the public purse more than £50m per year. It has risen by 300%-plus within the past 12 years, when the bill was £11.4m.
Members of the legal profession are considering going back on strike as they do not believe clients can be properly represented under Mr Ford’s proposals.
The Law Society has raised serious concerns that the reforms could have an adverse effect on family cases involving children, which account for the highest amount of civil legal aid payments.
The first round of the civil legal aid reform, which was presented yesterday to the justice committee, proposes to restrict the number of junior and senior barristers that are allowed to work on a case.
In some cases, solicitors may have to carry out the work on their own. Mr Crawford said that, in many cases, courtrooms have been full of legal representatives despite there being no legal issues between the representatives.
Within the next few months the Justice Department intends to take control over lawyers’ remuneration in civil cases and introduce set fees — which will lead to huge reductions in pay for barristers and legal firms.
Currently there are no set legal fees in civil cases and lawyers simply forward their bills to the taxing master, an independent person who assesses the bills submitted by the legal profession.
Justice committee chairman Paul Givan said that because there is currently no control or accountability of the civil legal aid system there is a risk of fraud.
The Law Society said there has been a lot of concern within the legal profession over the pending reforms, but until it sees the details of the proposals it is difficult to predict the scale of challenge they will present to legal practices.
Concern was raised by the Law Society over the proposed reductions of representation in family cases. There are fears that the move could compromise the welfare of the child and cause delays within the justice system.
Northern Ireland’s legal aid expenditure is believed to be the most expensive in the world.
The department is currently struggling to meet its legal aid budget of £85m. The legal aid bill for this financial year is predicted to rise to £107m.
By 2014/15 the budget must be reduced to £75m.
Ever-rising fees leave us with the most expensive legal aid bill in the world
By Deborah McAleese
Northern Ireland’s publicly funded legal bills are believed to be the most expensive in the world.
Last year legal aid expenditure was £109m. This year it is expected to be £107m, which greatly exceeds the budget of £85m.
Within the space of 12 years the amount of public funds spent on criminal and civil cases has soared by more than £70m, from £37m in 1999/2000.
Legal aid expenditure in Northern Ireland costs almost £60 per person, compared to £38 in England and Wales and £32 in Scotland.
In the Republic of Ireland the cost per person is around £20.
Previously, criminal cases accounted for the majority of the legal aid budget.
However, following a reform of criminal legal aid, more money is now being paid out in civil cases.
Legal aid costs in civil cases have jumped by more than 300% over the past 12 years from £11.4m in 1999/2000 to £53.4m for last year.
Part of that increase is thought to be due to a rise in children’s order cases coming before the courts. The justice committee heard yesterday that the Baby P case in England in 2009 has led to an increase in children’s order cases in Northern Ireland.
However, justice committee chairman Paul Givan pointed out that while there has been a 30% increase in the number of these cases since 2009, the civil legal aid bill has climbed by 70% in that same period. “Should the legal aid bill not have gone up by the same level as the upload in cases?” Mr Givan said.
The Department of Justice told the justice committee that officials are currently working with the Legal Services Commission to try and determine why the average costs of these cases has increased.
Robert Crawford, the department’s deputy director of public legal services, said that part of the reason must be the level of fees that are being paid in the cases.
Pay levels in civil cases are due to be reformed early next year in a bid to reduce the legal aid bill.
The Government intends to take control of payments made to lawyers and introduce set fees.
Currently there are no set legal aid fees in civil cases.
It is left up to an independent taxing master to assess the bills that are submitted by lawyers.
“It is a serious problem that people are setting their own tariffs,” Alliance committee member Stewart Dickson said.
Stormont begins move to abolish archaic law of scandalising the court
By Deborah McAleese
Stormont's justice committee wants to abolish the ancient offence of scandalising the court, which was used by the Attorney General in his controversial case against Peter Hain.
Committee members yesterday agreed to proceed with an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, which would see the offence repealed.
The move comes after Attorney General John Larkin decided to charge the former Northern Ireland Secretary with the offence of scandalising the court, over remarks he made about a High Court judge in his autobiography.
The offence is a form of contempt of court, but has not been successfully prosecuted since 1931.
It is committed by publishing anything that ridicules the judiciary to the extent that it is likely to bring the administration of justice into disrepute.
Last month, during a review of the offence in England and Wales, Justice Minister David Ford said he did not want to be included in any change to the legislation.
Mr Ford said that he did not see it as a matter of priority. His decision was criticised by Mr Hain, who said: “I’m astonished Northern Ireland isn’t joining at least England and Wales to get rid of
this medieval offence.” Justice committee chairman Paul Givan said previously that if Mr Ford was not prepared to allow Westminster to get rid of the offence he would look to see if there was a way individuals in the Assembly could bring forward amendments “and get rid of an archaic piece of legislation”.
Examples of the offence include being extremely offensive to a judge, or accusing him of corruption. In the leading case, from 1900, a journalist was found guilty for describing a judge as an “impudent little man in horsehair, a microcosm of conceit and empty-headedness”.
But the law is vague, and it is questionable whether it is compatible with the right to freedom of expression and the European Convention on Human Rights.