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21 August 2013

Real Debate On Legal Aid Needed

The real social impact of legal aid cuts have not been outlined - why not?

The Department of Justice for Northern Ireland has recently issued consultations proposing further cuts to Civil and Criminal Legal Aid funding.

 As President of the Law Society of Northern Ireland, I have been once again struck by the response of the media and elected politicians to further proposals to reduce the budget for legal aid in Northern Ireland.

 It is a sad realisation that, in all the recent reporting about Legal Aid and, the proposals by the Minister of Justice to impose these further cuts, no one has asked what the social impact of the proposed cuts will be.

It seems to be accepted without question that reducing Legal Aid expenditure can only be a good thing so why should anybody care?

We should all care!

Sensationalist headlines are used to make the cuts more palatable to the public.

The real story is that our devolved administration is committed to significant reductions in legal aid funding - funding which was designed to fundamentally allow those in difficulty to access the legal help and advice needed in a complex society, with unique issues of social deprivation.

It is a fact that with increasing cuts to legal aid funding we run the risk that key areas of legal advice and representation will be closed to those who need help.

I respectfully suggest that it is time to stop being complacent about the debate about the reduction in Legal Aid provision.

This goes beyond Government. It’s about ensuring legal representation for the victims of domestic violence, those in financial difficulties, the members of broken families and a fair trial for all.

Reducing Legal Aid provision yet further means limiting your access to effective and meaningful legal advice and representation. 

This will be the real consequence of the Department of Justice’s proposals.

It is time to look more closely at the issue and to realise that, behind the attractive headlines, there is a real debate that has not yet begun.

Michael Robinson

President

Law Society of Northern Ireland