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Ford in firing line over new plans to cut legal aid costs

By Adrian Rutherford

Justice Minister David Ford is back on a collision course with lawyers over further plans to cut Northern Ireland's soaring legal aid budget.

This year's bill is forecast to top £103m - having risen 63% over the past decade.

A review ordered by the Department of Justice has warned the expenditure - which has run over budget in each of the last 10 years - is unsustainable.

Mr Ford is intent on slashing the spending - a move that has already drawn strong opposition from the legal profession.

Now the Minister has upped the stakes by launching a consultation on a fresh round of cuts.

Mr Ford said: "We currently have a comprehensive legal aid scheme and we need to get the balance right to ensure that it is affordable into the future and that the most vulnerable in society get the support that they need."

The review confirms the widely-held belief that Northern Ireland has by far the most generous legal aid system in Europe.

It has topped £100m in six of the last seven years, reaching a record £111.4m last year.

In the current year, spending is predicted to fall to £103.1m - but that will still be 25% over its £82.5m budget.

While changes to legal aid have already been made, Mr Ford believes more needs to be done to reduce costs and improve the justice system.

Earlier this year he commissioned a further review, which was made public yesterday. It states: "The cost of legal aid in Northern Ireland has remained stubbornly high in recent years despite a period of austerity which has seen substantial reductions in most other areas of public spending."

One of the 150 recommendations is for "a radical reduction" in the use of two barristers in legal aid cases.

The Belfast Telegraph has reported on a series of six-figure legal aid payouts in recent times.

These include £470,000 to fund the defence of a killer who beat a toddler to death - even though he did not give evidence during his trial.

Lawyers for Barry McCarney, who murdered Millie Martin, received £320,000 for his initial trial, with a failed appeal pushing the bill up by £150,000.

The consultation on the cuts will last for 14 weeks until February.

Belfast Telegraph


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