Belfast Telegraph

Justice at risk in legal aid impasse

By Alastair Ross

Quality, independence and efficiency have long been established as the defining characteristics of an effective criminal justice system. In the face of huge challenges, Northern Ireland has much to be proud of in providing and maintaining such a system.

Yet the latest dispute between the Department of Justice and the legal profession represents a considerable threat to each fundamental principle. Nearly 1,000 Crown Court cases stand adjourned - each involving defendants, victims and witnesses awaiting outcomes following traumatic experiences.

Everyone recognises the difficult financial climate in which the Government operates, but the department has a responsibility to deliver an effective public service.

The number of cases coming before the courts has declined over the past 12 months, so alongside other reforms, the reduction in the legal aid bill has been quite significant. These efforts are to be applauded. However, our focus must also be on ensuring the quality of the legal representation offered is not diminished.

In that regard it is imperative that we also have a robust legal profession, independent and empowered to challenge agencies in pursuit of a client's best interest.

If any of us had a friend or relative who was unfortunate enough to find themselves in a witness box, we would hope that the prosecutor or defence counsel presenting their case was experienced and of the highest quality.

The ongoing uncertainty is of little benefit to defendants, who are entitled to a fair trial within a reasonable period of time. It also places a heavy strain on victims, witnesses and their families.

The latest intervention by the Lord Chief Justice has brought about a mediation process. It is encouraging that the department and the legal profession are participating, but it is clear that the continuation of the dispute will compromise fundamental tenets of our criminal justice system.

A swift compromise to the impasse would be welcome progress in building a sustainable and ongoing relationship between both parties. I urge all parties involved to embrace the mediation process and find an equitable resolution.

  • Alastair Ross MLA is chairman of the Assembly's justice committee

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