Justice Minister David Ford has challenged the Law Society to identify specific proposals to save money in the justice system.
The Minister was the key speaker at a Law Society conference "What Price Justice", which had been organised to discuss the review of legal aid being undertaken by the Department of Justice.
The Minister told the conference that despite comments that the legal aid bill was a small sum compared to the overall budget for the Department of Justice, this was factually incorrect. David Ford said: "In recent years the legal aid bill has risen to over £100million per year, which is around 8% of the total budget for the Department of Justice, by no definition a small sum.
“I recognise there have been problems forecasting the amount of legal aid needed, and we are working with the Legal Services Commission to improve this. But, better forecasting will not create any new money. Our bid to the October monitoring round for additional funding was not granted and we are actively cutting back on other work areas across the Department to fund the increasing legal aid bill.
“With legal aid expenditure this year some £40million over budget, there has never been a greater urgency to implement savings in legal aid. In the absence of additional money I need to press forward with this reform programme as quickly as possible. I welcome the comments from the President of the Law Society indicating a willingness to offer proposals to save money, and I look forward to hearing any specific proposals. But, while those discussions are taking place the current economic challenges are such that there can be no pause in the legal aid reform programme."
David Ford set out his current programme of legal aid reforms and concluded by telling the conference; "My goal is for a legal aid system that is effective, accessible and affordable. Given the very real budget pressures, it is now time to build on the reforms underway and I have decided to commission a further review to consider how the principle of ensuring appropriate levels of access to justice can be maintained in the context of difficult resourcing issues. I encourage the Law Society to work co-operatively with my department in support of this principle, which is of vital importance in any democratic society.”