Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Editor's Viewpoint: Case for slashing cost of legal aid

Legal aid fees in Northern Ireland are a matter of continuing concern. Today this newspaper reveals that 21 top barristers earned more than £1m in legal aid during the past five years, with one receiving over £3.8m.

In the same period a total of £55m of legal aid was paid to 70 QCs. No-one questions the competence of those involved, but the huge amount of money being paid out in legal aid is open to question.

The public mood is clearly echoed by DUP MLA Jim Wells who has described legal aid payments as “staggering, astonishing and eye-watering”.

The Justice Minister David Ford encountered |intense opposition from vested interests when he courageously set out to reduce inflated legal aid payments to solicitors, and the profession fought tooth and nail to retain its privileges.

He has now pledged to slash the amount paid to barristers by 20%, and he will have overwhelming public support in doing so, and even further if |possible. The legal profession, as usual, tries to |excuse the high fees with special reasoning, but these arguments make little or no impression |on the public which believes that lawyers are |remarkably able to look after themselves and are generally highly overpaid.

Last week this newspaper revealed high amounts of legal aid paid to well-off people to fund their |defence in murder trials, and last year alone almost £2m was spent defending 14 people convicted of murder.

The Justice Minister has already published plans to recover legal aid costs from wealthy defendants upon conviction, and again the general public will approve of such a measure.

Legal aid should be made available to those who really require financial help, but it should not be a system of simply shovelling out money in vast amounts, particularly at a time of severe cutbacks.

No price alone can be placed on justice, but |common sense should be coupled with fairness in overhauling a system that seems to be virtually out of control.

The sooner this is done, the better it will be.

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