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Why Ford will prove to be a law unto himself

The howls of anguish from the Bar Council at the reduction in top Legal Aid fees from a liveable £182-an-hour to a ruinous £152.50 are only the start.

Over the coming months, we can expect more protests from the Prison Officers Association and other vested interests who have grown accustomed to a spending regime that was ring-fenced against changes of government and cuts in other areas during the years of violence.

Trimming back policing and justice budgets, which mushroomed in the years of violence, is not just a priority for David Ford, our first Justice Minister in 40 years. It is one of the few areas where cuts will be relatively painless to the public at large.

During the conflict, policing, justice and security were regarded, by Labour and Tories alike, as the overriding spending priority in Northern Ireland. No one spelt it out, but that was one of the main reasons why our infrastructure was allowed to decay - and why it is such a headache for politicians today.

It was inevitable that, if it came to a choice between law and order on the one hand and upgrading the drains on the other, any British government was going to long-finger the drainage for as long as possible. Now it is payback time for health and water; the Executive, like Matt Baggott, the Chief Constable, must dig deep for ways to cut costs.

In the case of the barristers, it is a battle which they are bound to lose and, although three of them withdrew from cases this month because they weren't being paid enough by the taxpayer, these are intelligent people who will cut a deal. There are more than 600 members of the Northern Ireland Bar Association - far too many for a little place like this now that the Troubles are over.

It is true that many junior barristers struggle for years to get established after a long and expensive training regime. Yet, however much our hearts go out to them, the headline figures make stark reading. The top 25 QCs in Northern Ireland earned more that £250,000-a-year from legal aid alone in 2008 and the Legal Aid budget is 20% higher than England and Wales where cuts in fees are also being made.

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That isn't publicly defensible when national debt is soaring and the health service is creaking with the strain. It isn't competitive either. There has been no difficulty in getting star QCs, like Orlando Pownall, over from London to work on legal aid cases here.

The findings of the Bloody Sunday Tribunal should be published within weeks. Its £191m budget also attracted many of Britain's top legal brains.

The locals had the chutzpah to complain that rates of pay were too low - yet not many of them turned down briefs. "It was a bit of a gravy train. Yes, some of us could get more per hour for commercial work, but Bloody Sunday was very steady for those who represented one of the parties and you were working on a single case," one top London barrister told me during the hearings.

Again, the figures speak for themselves. Three barristers working for the inquiry made £2.77m even after the hearing stopped. Those same three made £5m between then during the hearing.

Several lawyers became millionaires on this case alone and firms of solicitors made millions in fees. Eversheds, in Wales, made £12.6m working for the inquiry and, in Belfast, Madden and Finucane gained £9.2m in fees. When the report is published, we will be able to judge whether this spending brought the best possible value for the bereaved.

Is it right, for instance, to pay the sort of money we do on public enquiries when the Historic Inquiries Team, which is investigating 3,200 deaths, has had to lay off staff and slow down its work because of budget cuts?

The argument isn't that the justice budget was never justified; it's just that times have changed.

During the Troubles, the Government needed lots of lawyers, prison officers and police to service its policy of processing paramilitaries through the court and penal system.

Once recruited, these people faced a terrorist threat which was far more severe than any posed by the dissidents. It was taken as given that the total remuneration and protection packages would, to some degree, reflect the risks.

Labour and Tory governments were also happy to pay up in an effort to contain the violence until a solution could be found. An expensive system of checks and balances was put in place to bolster confidence in the system and proof it against challenges in the European Court.

For instance, the decision to prosecute was taken away from the police and given to an independent prosecution service - something which does not happen in all cases in England and Wales.

Police time is wasted preparing prosecution files in minor cases, many of which never reach court. This diverts police from other work and there is strong suspicion that, since the Patten redundancies, there are not yet enough experienced detectives to fulfil this work.

It mightn't have commanded public confidence during the Troubles, but there is now an unanswerable argument for dealing with more cases by way of caution or, where guilt is accepted, by a fixed penalty imposed on the spot by a police officer, rather like today's speeding tickets.

If a person feels aggrieved, they can take the case through the courts, but most will find it more convenient not to and, in the process, will free up police officers and reduce court costs.

While terrorism set the political agenda, security and justice were understandably regarded as fiscal sacred cows, but now Ford's £1.5bn budget is looking more like a piggy bank.

It won't be the answer to all our problems - there are limits to the possible savings. But this may be the last peace dividend left to us after the years of violence.

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