Legal aid budget cut plans revealed
Plans to cut £20 million from the civil legal aid budget will include standardising fees and limiting levels of legal representation, it has been revealed.
The measures are aimed at bringing Northern Ireland into line with England and Wales but could put the Justice Minister at loggerheads, once again, with the legal profession.
The proposals have been put to the Stormont scrutiny committee for justice ahead of a public consultation and are expected to be rolled out by the end of the year.
Last year the legal aid bill was over £100 million - £51 million of which was for civil cases such as divorce, child custody battles and judicial reviews - 43% higher than England and Wales.
In the decade between 2000 and 2010 the costs for publicly funded legal representation in civil courts has rocketed by 223% from £11.4 million to £36.9 million - at a time when inflation was 6.7%. It has also risen by 31% in the three years since the devolution of policing and justice powers.
The introduction of standard fees is expected to deliver £14 million of annual savings including £2.5 million currently paid in fees to the 'taxing master' for his work in assessing cases and £500,000 as disbursement to reimburse legal professionals for the cost of preparing claims.
It is also hoped that standardisation will increase control and accountability mechanisms making it easier for the DoJ to forecast expenditure. Proposals is to restrict legal aid funding for representation could see further savings of £3.5 million a year. Stricter criteria will also be applied by the Legal Services Commission in determining whether or not to grant funding for representation.
Under the new arrangements, legal aid would be provided for a solicitor in the Magistrates' or Family Proceedings Courts.
For the majority of cases in the County Court and Family Care Centre, legal aid funding would be granted for one junior counsel with funding for senior counsel only granted in the most serious and complex High Court cases.
The number of barristers practising in Northern Ireland has increased dramatically in recent years to 705 compared with 596 in 2006.