People facing criminal charges over the Christmas holidays could be left without future legal representation because of plans by Justice Minister David Ford to cut the massive legal aid bill, it was claimed on Thday.
Law Society president Richard Palmer has urged him to suspend his proposals.
He said: “The cuts are so deep and so widespread that the impact will be that clients, such as those clients who will need help over the holiday period, may not in future have such access to a solicitor.”
Mr Ford hit back and declared: “The suggestion that my legal aid reforms will result in people not being able to access legal advice during holiday periods is scaremongering nonsense.”
Legal aid paid out in criminal and civil court proceedings is estimated at £100 million a year. Mr Ford has already taken steps to reduce the spend on criminal legal aid and is now proposing similar measures for civil cases.
On the civil side, Mr Ford has pledged to cut the bill by reducing the number of people eligible to claim as well as restricting the number of barristers appearing in certain cases. His proposed changes are aimed at reducing the annual civil aid bill by around £20 million.
Northern Ireland has the most expensive legal aid system in the world, relative to the size of its population, with the civil legal aid increasing from just under £11.5 million to £53 million between 1999 and last year. Legal aid in criminal cases is running at £50 million a year.
But Mr Palmer has called on Mr Ford to think again before pressing ahead with his proposals.
In a letter he said: “As we approach the Christmas season, many of us look forward to the celebrations, the fun and the cheer. For many though, Christmas is a lonely and sad time. It can be a time when families come under pressure and cracks in relationships emerge. It can be a time also when people attend parties, consume too much alcohol, emotions run high and events get out of control.
“Many solicitors will be on call 24/7 over the Christmas period. They will receive calls from clients who find themselves in need of the law. Some clients will find themselves in trouble and violence or disorderly behaviour may have occurred. Solicitors will be there for such people.”
He added: “The current round of legal aid cuts proposed by the Minister for Justice is of deep concern to the Law Society and the solicitors’ branch of the profession. The cuts are so deep and so widespread that the impact will be that clients, such as those clients who will need this help over the holiday period, may not in future have access to a solicitor.
“The society has asked the minister to suspend the cuts and to review the justice system to identify efficiencies in the system rather than by simply cutting payment rates again. The society has also asked that the department conduct a full assessment of the impact of the cuts on the availability of solicitors to do this work.
“People in such circumstances rely on the professional skills, knowledge and experience of a qualified solicitor. The society will continue to meet with Minister Ford to press the case for a fundamental review of the system prior to any decision to press ahead with such devastating cuts.”