Plans to further cut the legal aid bill in Northern Ireland threaten to dissolve the fundamental right of vulnerable people to access justice, a senior barrister has warned.
Chairman of the region’s Bar Council Mark Mulholland QC characterised the Department of Justice proposals to reduce the number of advocates involved in certain civil and family disputes as putting a price on everything and a value on nothing.
Solicitors for clients supported by public funds would no longer be automatically entitled to hire counsel to put their case in court if the most radical cost-saving measures are implemented.
It could knock almost £5 million off the £50 million annual legal aid bill for non-criminal cases, with Justice Minister David Ford keen to examine further measures that could bring the savings to £20 million a year.
The moves come after a similar initiative to cut the amount of public money paid to barristers in criminal cases.
Addressing the second annual Bar Council conference at the High Court in Belfast, Mr Mulholland said limiting the options of those supported by legal aid would undermine the justice system.
“If you are in danger of losing your liberty, your children, your right to decide your own future, your livelihood, your home or your reputation - recourse to the law should be open to you,” he said.
“It should not be, as it seems to be in these proposals, solely predicated on your ability to afford justice. It should be your right to justice.”
He added: “Many, if not all, of us came to the Bar with the vocation of representing those in society who are the most vulnerable, the weak and the repressed - it’s these very same people that the Department of Justice is now deciding should not be afforded the right of representation by a barrister of their choice or in many instances by a barrister at all.
“All in the name of cutting the public purse - a price for everything and a value on nothing.”
Mr Mulholland said the stereotype that all barristers were rich fat cats was potentially destructive and insisted that many barristers were actually struggling to keep themselves afloat financially.
Minister Ford has said he is committed to protecting the principle that people should have help with their legal problems but said budget constraints meant efficiencies had to be found in the legal aid spend.
While the combined legal aid bill this year was over £100 million, by 2014/15 the annual allocation for legal aid will be £75 million.
As a result of cost-cutting measures, legal aid expenditure on criminal cases has fallen from £60 million two years ago to £48 million in 2011/12.
Over the same time period, the public bill for representation in non-criminal cases has increased from £37 million to £53 million.
The most costly are often family disputes related to the custody of children.
Mr Mulholland told conference delegates that he would work with the minister to find an acceptable resolution.
“We fully acknowledge the current economic environment in which all public money, which is scarce, has to be allocated. Of that there is absolutely no doubt,” he said.
“As a result we have tried to work diligently with the department to find ways to ensure that the public purse is protected but at the same time never losing sight of the fact that appropriate representation should not, cannot and must never be eroded - collaboration not conflict is the way forward for us all - the Bar, the Law Society, the minister and the department.”
He added: “It is an honour and a privilege to serve as chairman on behalf of the Bar of Northern Ireland and with that privilege is bestowed the responsibility of all 710 members that I seek to serve and for whom the future in serving the public is eclipsed at every turn by Government policy with cuts, threatened cuts and more cuts, which seeks to undermine the very integrity and very independence that we as a Bar bring to bear to the administration of justice.
“For my part, I pledge to continue to work hard with the minister, the Department of Justice and with all at Stormont and beyond on your behalf, to ensure that the members of this Bar and their clients are represented and to ensure that we meet our obligations as a professional body, as professional barristers, and that we protect access to justice, wherever and whenever we believe it risks being eroded.”