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14 March 2015

Legal Aid Proposals Are Unfair

Much has been said in the past number of days about access to justice and legal aid. It has been said that Northern Ireland has the most expensive legal aid system in Europe and that it is spiralling out of control.

I want to take this opportunity to examine some of these assertions in greater detail and to provide some perspective. 

Firstly, with regard to the cost of legal aid, the Ministry of Justice in England and Wales recently stated before a Parliamentary Inquiry that cuts to legal aid were necessary in a situation in which legal aid constituted 25% of their overall budget.

In Northern Ireland however, current legal aid spending sits at just under 10% of the overall budget of the Department of Justice, demonstrating the need for greater interrogation of how figures are being presented.In a context of greater socio-economic need, it cannot be said legal aid is a disproportionate burden on resources.Secondly, when assessing value for money, it is important to look at the overall cost of the justice system, rather than simply isolating legal aid. In some systems more resources are provided for legal representation, whilst in others court administration costs more.

The compelling issue is the interests of justice and what services are being delivered in return for that investment.Thirdly, any attempts to distinguish between ‘frontline’ services and legal aid is misguided.

Legal aid is a frontline public service protecting the most vulnerable in a context of high socio-economic need.Access to justice and law and order are not mutually exclusive, each is dependent on the other in a civilised society.Minister Ford’s announcement regarding further cuts to the legal aid budget endanger services to the most vulnerable.Solicitors running small businesses will have to seriously evaluate whether they can afford to continue to provide such services.

An unforeseen cut of up to 15% will have financial repercussions on the operation of any small business and represents an unfair levy on work already undertaken at an agreed rate.The Law Society supports the principles of efficiency and economy within our justice system and continues to call for a holistic review of its operation. We urge the Minister to chart a fairer way forward to achieve these aims.