Levy on legal aid payments proposed
Legal aid payments to lawyers in Northern Ireland will be subject to a new levy of up to 15% as part of radical proposals to absorb multimillion-pound cuts to justice spending in the region.
Stormont Justice Minister David Ford is seeking to fast-track the measure through the Assembly in an effort to address a £20 million-plus shortfall in the legal aid budget for the coming financial year.
While legal aid expenditure is projected at around £103 million in 2015/16, there is only £82.5 million set aside for legal aid in the department's already pressurised budget allocation.
With his department wrestling with a £75 million reduction to expenditure across the justice system, Mr Ford is also proposing to cut the number of courts in Northern Ireland from 20 to 12.
The region's most senior judge, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, has warned that closing eight courts would impact the vulnerable in society.
The legal aid levy is envisaged as a short-term measure, that would likely be in operation for four to five years, while other more systemic cost-cutting measures to reduce the annual bill take effect.
Mr Ford outlined his proposals to members of his scrutiny committee at Stormont.
Mr Ford, who claims Northern Ireland has the highest per capita spend on legal aid in the world, said the levy was an "exceptional and emergency" measure and his department had "no option" other than to introduce it.
He is also proposing a number of other steps, such as limiting the scope of those who can obtain legal aid for money damages civil cases, and constricting support to those who are eligible for legal aid in family disputes to the cases's "key" hearings.
Mr Ford said other arms of the criminal justice system would be adversely impacted if any more was diverted to legal aid.
"The department has an extremely difficult budget situation this year, in particular, even after making specific allocations, there is pressure of over £20 million on the legal aid budget," he said.
"That's why we are looking to move forward on some measures to reduce scope on limited areas but also to potentially introduce a levy, of a maximum of 15%, on legal aid fees at the point where they are paid, as an emergency measure."
He added: "If we don't do that it would simply not be possible to maintain front line public protection services."
The minister hopes to utilise the 'accelerated passage' route to push the levy proposal through the Assembly as quickly as possible, with new legislation potentially coming into operation in the summer. That would mean the proposal would not go through the Assembly's committee scrutiny stage.
But the minister will not be able to proceed without the backing of the power-sharing Executive.
In the last number of years Mr Ford has already introduced a number of measures to reduce the legal aid spend, such as the standardisation of fees in criminal cases.
While the overall cost has not shown any significant reduction from the £100-£110 million bill that is consistently registered year on year, Mr Ford insists it would be around £130 million without those steps.
The £100 million-plus bills have been well above departmental budget allocations.
While in previous years additional funding has been sourced from elsewhere in the department to plug the hole, Mr Ford has now essentially warned that there is not enough money left to bridge the gap.
While the department had been facing the prospect of a 15% cut to its overall funding from the Executive in 2015/16, it did secure additional money in the final budget settlement, which left it needing to make a total reduction of just under 7%.
The anticipated legal aid budget of £75 million per annum would have dropped to around £63 million with a 15% cut but, by using funds from the additional Executive allocation, and also identifying some internal departmental savings, the budget now stands at around £82.5 million.
That is still a long way short of the projected legal aid claim of £103 million from civil and criminal lawyers in 2015/16.
With the NI Courts and Tribunals Service facing a cut of almost 11% or £2.3 million, Mr Ford is proposing to close Limavady, Strabane, Enniskillen, Magherafelt, Ballymena, Newtownards, Armagh and Lisburn courts.
He claims the move would save almost £1.5 million a year, with £300,000 of that saved by the Prison Service on reduced transport costs for taking prisoners to court.
The closures would see services centralised in other regional courts, with the number of court districts in Northern Ireland reduced from seven to three.
The Old Town Hall court in Belfast which was temporarily closed last year will reopen under the proposals to become a dedicated venue for family court business.
The Lord Chief Justice issued a blunt warning about the potential consequences of the closures.
Sir Declan said the remaining courts risk becoming overcrowded, with business delayed and a rise in complaints inevitable.
He also said victims and witnesses would have to travel further.
"The impact will be felt most by the most vulnerable in our society," he said.
Sir Declan added: "This raises the risk of over-crowding in some waiting areas in the remaining courts. This happens when you are trying to run too many courts at the one time.
"The provision of ample waiting areas is essential where there are different types of court business under one roof. It is particularly important to keep those involved in family proceedings, especially children, separate from those involved in criminal proceedings."
The senior judge continued: "There is a high degree of uncertainty whether courts will be able to operate effectively with this number of venues.
"The proposals will certainly place a strain on the remaining courts and will make the experience of coming to court for victims, witnesses, claimants and defendants very uncomfortable.
"They will find themselves having to travel greater distances to get to court with the added hardship of transport costs and the additional time this will take."
In 2013, NICTS permanently closed courthouses in Larne and Bangor.
Mr Ford said the current court model was not sustainable.
"The financial challenges facing the NI Courts and Tribunals Service mean that continuing to operate the current 20 courthouses is no longer sustainable," he said.
"The closure of up to eight courthouses is one of a number of measures aimed at strategically positioning the Courts and Tribunals Service for the challenges it will face over the next three to five years. It will also contribute to the Executive's wider Public Sector Reform and Restructuring Programme."
The minister added: "Court closures will undoubtedly have a significant impact on court and tribunal users. But we are committed to working with the Judiciary to minimise the impact and to ensure efficient and effective service delivery."
Away from cost cutting proposals, Mr Ford has also confirmed his intention to change how the nine independent members of the Policing Board, the PSNI's oversight body, are appointed.
The members are currently appointed all at once at the start of a new Assembly mandate. Mr Ford is proposing to change this to a rolling process, whereby three members are appointed each year, with each serving a three year term.