Editor's Viewpoint: No justification for huge legal aid bill
No matter whose figures you rely on, there is no doubt that legal aid payments in Northern Ireland are unsustainable at the current levels. Even the lawyers, solicitors and barristers accept that there has to be a reduction in the legal aid budget, but they have also threatened to withdraw their services in protest at new rules brought in by the local Department of Justice which would see a 25% cut in fees.
There is no suggestion that lawyers are acting in anything but a proper manner in claiming their fees, but with legal aid bills here nearly triple those in England, something is obviously amiss. It was to address that discrepancy that the Department brought out the new rules. In these times of austerity when society at large is having to tighten its belt, there will be little sympathy for lawyers and their protests over new fee levels.
To date there has been no convincing argument why the legal aid bill here is so high and no convincing reasons to back up the lawyers' claims that the interests of justice would be hampered if their income is reduced. Surely the legal professions will always work as diligently as possible in the interests of their clients. Justice may be an imperfect science, but it should never have a monetary measure.
As far as the lay person is concerned, lawyers get very well paid for their work and that life for the legal profession in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and since has been something of a gravy train.
That may be an unfair generalisation but it is the perception and, after all, it is the ordinary taxpayer who is footing a large part of the bill. There can be no justification for the prevailing sky-high expenditure on legal aid and new rules to curb it must be implemented and adhered to.