Belfast Telegraph

Dangers of legal aid changes

By Michael Robinson

IN a democratic society, all citizens have the right to a fair trial, regardless of their personal or financial circumstances.

And no person should ever be placed in a position of inequality before the law.

In Northern Ireland, this democratic right is extended to thousands of people involved in civil and criminal cases who will be appearing before the courts at some stage.

The outcomes of these cases will be life-changing for so many people – these include the families facing repossession of their home, the children of families which have fallen apart, the victims of domestic abuse or the person who has been injured in a car accident.

For such vulnerable people the legal route is their last and final recourse to seek justice and a fair outcome.

High levels of unemployment and social deprivation in Northern Ireland inevitably mean that there will always be people who will need, but cannot afford, legal representation.

In our democracy, the safety-net has always been the legal aid system and representation provided by the network of solicitors.

This safety-net is now threatened by a series of proposals being made by the Department of Justice, which will significantly reduce the criminal and civil legal aid budgets.

The implications of these proposals are far-reaching and the real nature and impact of the cuts has not yet featured prominently in the public debate.

The public should be concerned – especially if you are currently on a low income, a couple going through a divorce, the victim in an abusive relationship, seeking access to your children, seeking answers from your local school, or health trust, have been involved in an accident, or are facing criminal charges.

Even if you believe these legal aid proposals will not affect you, you should be concerned, because regardless of whatever your circumstances are today, one day you may find yourself in a position when you need professional legal representation and it will not be available to you.

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