Belfast Telegraph

Top lawyer attacks legal aid move

Short-term pressure to reduce legal aid costs will not improve access to justice, the head of the Law Society in Northern Ireland has warned.

The Government is reviewing how official funding for lawyers' work is distributed, with Attorney General John Larkin among those arguing for reform.

But Law Society president Norville Connolly said there can be no equal justice where legal representation depends on wealth.

"Justice is not a commodity which any Government can ration. If it is not accessible to all, the result will undoubtedly be an unequal society," he said.

He added there could not be a two-tier justice system or one where the prosecution is better equipped than the defence or where a private citizen is dwarfed by the wealth of a Government department, company or individual.

"Improvements to access to justice will not be achieved if the primary driving force is the short-term expediency of reduced costs to the legal aid budget," Mr Connolly said. "In fact, such a narrow policy may lead to increased costs elsewhere in the system."

He delivered the keynote address at the Law Society's council dinner before an audience including Justice Minister David Ford and Mr Larkin.

Legal aid is the system where the Government pays the cost of lawyers for those who cannot afford it.

Mr Ford said this month that a preliminary report should be available by February to help ensure the right to a fair trial while making savings. He called for a reduction in the legal aid budget.

Last year, legal aid cost around £90 million. Barristers and solicitors have insisted they are not paid too much. Northern Ireland has more reliance on the welfare state and on legal aid than other parts of the UK amid an economy which is expected to recover at a lacklustre rate.

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