Belfast Telegraph

Friday 27 May 2016

Soaring legal aid needs reined in

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 04/10/2013

Justice Minister David Ford has attempted to slash spending on legal aid
Justice Minister David Ford has attempted to slash spending on legal aid

Once again the spiralling cost of legal aid is making the headlines, despite the much-publicised attempts in the recent past by the Justice Minister David Ford to slash spending. The latest figures reveal that the legal aid bill is set to rise to more than £40m over budget, and that the final amount may be as high as £116m.

This is a whopping 54% more than the original forecast, and this extraordinary state of affairs is both baffling and infuriating to ordinary taxpayers.

The head of the Law Society Michael Robinson is blaming the authorities for setting unrealistically low legal aid targets. He further claims that those who allegedly mismanage the budget and who fail to set aside funds to meet the cost of completed work, then complain about the spiralling legal aid bill.

His critics may challenge such claims, but even if there is some justifiable basis to Mr Robinson's argument, there is also a persuasive legitimacy to the question as to whether the taxpayers are getting value for money in Northern Ireland, where the costs are much higher than in other parts of the United Kingdom.

There is a public perception, rightly or wrongly, that many people in the legal profession here do very nicely financially, and an overspend of such magnitude in the legal aid budget will do little to change this image.

Sadly, the annual bill has to be met by the Government, in other words the taxpayer, and this ludicrous situation cannot be allowed to continue. Members of the legal profession need to come into line with their counterparts elsewhere, and to be prepared to manage on less. A huge number of people in the United Kingdom have long had to live with belt- tightening, and the legal profession in Northern Ireland has no inalienable right to expect special treatment.

This is especially so at a time when people in general are querying costs, and particularly those cases where the public finds it difficult to understand why legal aid is granted at all.

These tit-for-tat arguments are tiresome, and the public is fed up. Both sides in this legal squabble should face up to reality. They should set out a realistic budget and stick to it.

If most householders and business firms can operate such clear economics in a time of restraint, why cannot our learned friends also do the same?

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