Reforms to legal aid welcome
The size of the legal aid bill in Northern Ireland has been a contentious issue for some years. In six of the last seven years more than £100m annually has been paid out in legal aid fees to lawyers, and this year's bill is expected to outstrip its budget by 25%.
The Department of Justice, in a desperate bid to keep the legal aid spending under some control, has introduced a number of reforms, but that has led to defence lawyers withdrawing their services from new criminal cases where they would be expecting to be paid from legal aid. It is thought that some 531 cases are now backlogged because of this dispute.
It has to be stated clearly that legal aid is an invaluable resource for people of limited means who may find themselves in the dock. Anyone who is likely to lose their freedom deserves the best legal assistance possible and if it has to be paid from the public purse, then so be it. That simply is justice operating properly.
However, those who can afford to pay for their lawyers should do so. There is no infinite budget for the law or any other service and that was what compelled the Department of Justice to introduce its rule changes. However, barristers' and solicitors' bodies challenged the changes and a High Court judge said they did not provide fair pay to solicitors in some criminal cases. However, he declined to quash the new rules, instead urging all sides to sort the matter out.
It is in this context that we should welcome a recently introduced law which allows the Legal Services Agency to recoup legal aid payments made to wealthy defendants in crown court criminal cases. The first case involves a wealthy farmer who was convicted of murder.
While legal aid may be widely dispensed in the first instance to expedite trials, it is right that those who have sufficient assets and who can afford to pay the cost of their defence should do so. Essentially legal aid is designed to ensure that everyone, no matter what their means, should be fairly represented in court.
There have been a number of wealthy people convicted of the most serious crime on the statute book, murder, who have had their cases and appeals paid for from the public purse. Sadly the new clawback law cannot be applied retrospectively, but it will make those seeking to abuse the system through numerous appeals pause and take stock when they know they will be footing the bill.