Belfast Telegraph

We must not be blind to the cost of getting justice

Concern at the high cost of legal aid must not detract from the need to have a bespoke justice system in the province, says Adrian Colton

As the first anniversary of the devolution of policing and justice passes, it seems appropriate to reflect on its impact from the perspective of the Bar Council, whose members play a fundamental role in the justice system.

Devolution has offered productive interaction between the profession, the Assembly and the minister. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Committee for Justice. The members have shown a genuine interest and commitment to a high quality justice system, essential in a civilised society. I trust the committee has seen the value in hearing from barristers who work within the justice system, providing essential representation to the public.

Despite the opportunity provided by devolution to create a justice system tailored to the needs of our jurisdiction, frustration remains that the debate on legal policy is constrained by comparisons to practices in England and Wales. An example of this can be seen in the current ministerial proposals relating to representation and remuneration in the Crown Court.

The Bar Council accepts the need to reduce legal aid expenditure from £104m per annum to £79m by 2013/14. Measures are necessary to address the justified public concern arising from large sums of public money being paid due to unforeseen increases in legal aid payments in a small number of high cost cases. It is worth noting that the bottom 56% of barristers earn less that £20,000 and the bottom 30% earn less than £5,000.

Of its own volition, the Bar Council developed a method abolishing the previous scheme which has now been combined with a Law Society proposal at the suggestion of the Justice Committee. Apart from meeting the budget, this system provides transparency, certainty and significant administrative savings. Despite producing savings of 53% for both solicitors and barristers fees, the Justice Department is pressing ahead with its own scheme, merely resorting to comparisons with England and Wales as justification. It will be a poor reflection on devolution if the opportunity to introduce a bespoke Northern Ireland system is missed. Any barrier to accessing representation is to the detriment of the public.

The cuts implemented in England and Wales have led to strong criticism from the House of Commons' Public Accounts Committee, the Judges' Council, the Lord Chief Justice and the Attorney General of England and Wales.

Most significant is the recent acknowledgment from Lord Bach, the former legal aid minister that "Labour got some things wrong in government and we will use our time in Opposition to rethink the legal aid system".

We do not want our justice minister having to make the same admission. It would be a mistake to ignore the crisis in England and Wales and blindly introduce changes which will create similar problems in this jurisdiction. Such folly can be avoided if the Department of Justice works with the profession.

Recently, the Bar Council hosted the Citizenship Bar Mock Trials UK Final with students selected from over 230 schools presenting criminal cases before the judiciary. During the competition, I spoke with judges and barristers who practice in England who presented a bleak picture of the current situation in the Crown Courts. Repeatedly I was asked by teachers and parents whether we should be encouraging students to consider a career in law.

The question of access to justice cannot be driven solely by financial considerations without regard to the quality of service offered to the public. The maintenance of excellence requires appropriate funding and the issues dealt with by the legal profession are of huge importance in a democratic society.

The preservation of a viable legal profession is essential to the future of this jurisdiction. We must be alive to the dangers so that any chairman of the Bar Council can give a resounding "Yes" to the teachers and parents who are worried about recommending or pursuing a career in law.

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