Concerns over access to justice following legal aid changes
People with genuine injuries could be prevented from going to Northern Ireland courts because of proposed changes in the legal aid system, a barrister claimed yesterday.
Legal aid is the system where the government pays the cost of lawyers for those who cannot afford to pay.
The Department of Justice is considering measures which may reduce the public bill.
Dermot Fee QC told Stormont's Justice Committee only a small proportion of legal aid went on funding for personal injury claims.
He said: "Access to justice for victims, people injured in industrial accidents, very serious injuries, if you don't have legal aid available to those people what is the alternative?"
He said the alternative being suggested was litigation funding agreements which would allow insurance companies to finance them.
According to the draft Justice Bill, the Legal Services Commission could establish or fund services under a litigation funding agreement. This allows litigants to pursue money damages cases, including personal injury claims, on the basis that they would not be liable for their legal costs if their case was unsuccessful.
If a client was successful then either a success fee obtained from the losing side, or a portion of the clients' award (or both) would be paid into a fund. This fund would then help meet the cost of legal fees in unsuccessful cases.
Mr Fee, who was speaking on behalf of the Bar Council of barristers, said it could actually increase the risks.
"The effect of it really we think is to prevent victims, people who have claims which are entirely justified, for which they are entitled to compensation, it will have the effect of preventing access (to justice)," he added.
He said civil legal aid was a relatively small cost, for personal injuries £1 million to £2 million, and was available to few people.
Robert Crawford from the Department of Justice said an access to justice review was expected to report back by February.