Legal aid recovery plans unveiled
Legal aid costs will be recovered from certain convicted criminals under new powers set to be introduced in Northern Ireland.
Justice Minister David Ford said offenders who are found to have the ability to pay after means testing will be billed.
Mr Ford told the Assembly he was also going to consider whether a limited public defender service should be set up to work on cases not taken by private legal firms.
The move was prompted by the threat of defendants going unrepresented during the recent industrial dispute between lawyers and the Government.
The minister's plan to reshape the justice system also includes measures on how to limit the cost of cases involving the theft of low-value items. Recent trials over the theft of a bag of prawns and a pair of jeans triggered controversy.
A series of proposals outlined in an independent report commissioned by Mr Ford on improving access to justice were laid before the Assembly.
Undertaken by former civil servant Jim Daniell, the report makes 159 conclusions and recommendations. Many focus on efforts to cut the legal aid bill. Proposals include: The introduction of no win, no fee arrangements for lawyers in damages cases. Introducing a standard fee to apply whether there is a guilty plea or the case goes to trial, thus avoiding unnecessary prolonging of cases.
Diversionary measures as an alternative to prosecution for less serious first and second-time offenders. The report will now be subject to a three-month public consultation but the minister pledged to bring forward proposals on the back of it in the new year.
Mr Ford added: "In looking at Civil Legal Aid, the report considers how to give priority to the most vulnerable in society and how to encourage early resolution of disputes. It finds that cases concerning family and children account for 70% of the current spend of civil legal aid and this is clearly a problem that needs to be addressed.
"I support the finding that many cases do not necessarily need to be resolved in a court hearing and the recommendation for the use of mediation and other alternatives."