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Legal aid cuts will serve up rough justice for vulnerable

The spin-doctors who used to run the Northern Ireland Office are doing a great job for Justice Minister David Ford. It looks as if he will, after all, bulldoze through all objections to his plans to introduce massive cuts to the legal aid available in criminal cases. To date, there has been barely a murmur of protest.

But look beyond the carefully-crafted soundbites about 'fat-cat' lawyers and you will see a much more dangerous agenda starting to emerge.

The assault on legal aid is part of a pattern we are seeing both in England and Wales and in Northern Ireland. In England and Wales, it is hoped to save £351m, while here the figure is just £4m.

In both cases, the legal profession has put forward counter-proposals which would save the same amount. So why risk causing paralysis in the courts for a scheme which will not save any significant money?

The answer is that both the coalition government at Westminster and the Justice Ministry here are waging war on the legal aid system itself.

Our democracy is based on three fundamental principles: the right to free education; the right to free healthcare; and equal access to the justice system.

All parties have supported these principles - until now. Opponents of our legal aid system say it costs too much and has to be cut.

Solicitors and barristers, in spite of what you may have read, agree that cuts are required. That's why we came into these negotiations with a joint proposal to cut the figure massively.

However, further cuts have now been forced through without taking onboard the impact they will cause; dangerous cuts which will directly threaten the weakest and most vulnerable in society.

The legal aid system exists in order to guarantee all citizens, regardless of their wealth or social standing, the opportunity to uphold their rights and defend their interests in court.

The Westminster government is attacking the system on three fronts:

* It is lowering the income level for qualifying for the system, excluding many middle and low-income earners from qualifying;

* It is excluding certain categories of people from qualifying, in divorce or immigration cases for example, ensuring the low paid get inferior, or even no, representation in court;

* It is lowering fees paid in legal advocacy for criminal cases - this will ultimately mean those qualifying for legal aid getting poorer, or indeed no, representation.

In Northern Ireland, we're only being attacked on the third of these fronts at present. But it's a safe bet that, once changes have been forced through, the ministry will turn its attention to the others.

It is important that people look beyond the spin and think clearly about the issues. Nowhere is this more important than in Northern Ireland.

If the ordinary citizen is unable to get legal aid, we will create a two-tier system of justice here, where the rich and powerful enjoy more rights than the weak and vulnerable and where miscarriages of justice are commonplace.

It is important to remember what legal aid provides in criminal cases. It ensures that even the weakest and most vulnerable will get professionally represented if they are accused of a crime.

Erode that to the point where many more citizens are excluded from qualifying, or where rates paid are so low that effective advocates are not available, and you are creating injustice and inequality at the heart of our legal system.

The Ministry of Justice was the last department to be devolved because of the acute sensitivities around its work. Our new shared future demands that all citizens have equality under the law and that everyone has access to legal representation if our rights are threatened, or we are accused of wrongdoing.

By neglecting the rights of the citizen, the ministry is in danger of undermining the very principles upon which it was founded.