Ford denies crusade against lawyers
Northern Ireland's Justice Minister has denied pursuing a crusade against lawyers paid through legal aid.
David Ford's plans to slash £20 million from the legal aid bill have been heavily criticised by barristers and solicitors.
But he told MLAs that stringent cuts to his departmental budget had left him with no choice but to wield the axe.
He said: "I have no more a crusade against lawyers paid from legal aid than I have a crusade against prison officers, police officers, probation officers, those who work in the courts and youth justice and every other spending area of the justice system which has had to be cut because of the budget cuts imposed on my department."
Mr Ford was speaking during Question Time at the Assembly.
Legal aid expenditure is projected to be around £103 million in 2015/16 but only £82.5 million has been set aside for it.
The minister's cost saving measures include applying a 15% levy on legal aid payments in the coming financial year - a move which has been branded "wholly unacceptable" by the Law Society for Northern Ireland.
Mr Ford also dismissed claims that some junior barristers were working for less than the minimum wage.
Alban Maginness told the Assembly he had received a tranche of letters from young men and women who were struggling at the Bar.
The SDLP MLA and qualified barrister accused the Justice Minister of being "dismissive" and "ill-informed" on the issue.
However Mr Ford said there was a disproportionately high number of barristers in Northern Ireland, which meant not everyone could earn a living from legal aid.
"There are no barristers working for below the national minimum wage," he said. "There may be those barristers who do not have enough cases to retain enough fees to equate to an annual salary which would be the equivalent of the national minimum wage
"The rates which are set for the employment of solicitors and barristers do not fall less on an hourly basis than the minimum wage.
"But what is clear is that there are so many barristers in Northern Ireland relative to other jurisdictions that they cannot all receive a living from that legal aid fund alone, given the fact that there are clearly those in more senior practise who earn very substantial sums from the legal aid budget.
"It is not my job to distribute the fees. It is a matter as to how the Bar regulates its profession and it is a matter of how cases are allocated. But that is not my responsibility. Those who do the work are paid the fees for the work they do."
Meanwhile, Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister - who is also a qualified barrister - warned that an "explosion" of personal litigants could clog up the courts.