Belfast Telegraph

Ford promises legal costs reforms

Laws forcing criminals in Northern Ireland to pay the costs of their defence teams are to come into force this autumn, the justice minister has said.

David Ford said there had been cases where convicted defendants have received legal aid payments from the state but it later became clear they were able to pay the fees for their lawyers.

The minister said: "I am pleased to tell the Assembly that I have made new rules to allow costs to be recovered in such cases and the rules were laid before the Assembly this morning. The rules, which will introduce Recovery of Defence Costs Orders, will come into force in the autumn after the start of the new legal term."

Mr Ford told the Assembly about his departmental action plan for 2012-2015. These targets surround improving access to justice and bringing legal aid within budget.

Objectives on legal aid include introducing a fixed means test for criminal legal aid, reviewing magistrates' courts fees and the level of remuneration for civil and family cases to identify savings, reviewing the level of representation in civil and family proceedings at magistrates' courts, county courts and the High Court, considering financial eligibility for civil legal aid and prioritising funding for more serious legal problems.

The legal system has reviewed the level of representation in criminal proceedings in court, producing savings estimated at £2 million a year.

Fees for Crown Court cases are being reassessed, expected to be complete by 2014. If further savings are required the department will consider reducing the scope of civil legal aid. It is also reviewing legal aid for clinical negligence cases.

Mr Ford stressed the importance of improving access to justice but said few would deny certain arrangements for legal aid have been too generous.

"The challenge that faces all of us who are committed to access to justice is to maintain and improve such access but to do so on a real value-for-money basis," he said.

"I am determined that we will not go down the path being followed elsewhere, whereby budgets are cut by reducing the scope of support for those who genuinely need assistance in accessing justice. Rather, we must work together ... to develop and deliver reforms that are both effective and affordable."

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