The justice minister has once again gone head-to-head with Northern Ireland’s lawyers in a row over legal aid.
David Ford – who slashed £20 million from last year’s criminal legal aid bill and plans to cut civil case costs by a similar sum – has hit back over claims his office mismanaged the legal aid budget.
Vehemently defending his department’s handling of the controversial issue, the Alliance Party minister warned members of the legal profession they must continue to tighten their belts.
“This is not an issue of bashing lawyers,” he said.
“This is an issue of living within budget. Lots of people have to pull their belts in a little, lawyers should not necessarily be exempt.”
Mr Ford claimed he had no choice but to impose budget cuts because vital work to protect the public was being cut back to subsidise the current legal aid system.
He added: “The reality is that at the moment I have asked other budget areas in the department to reduce expenditure by five per cent this year in order to continue to pay legal aid at its current level.
“That position is neither right nor sustainable.
“It is hard to justify cutting back on community safety to continue to pay lawyers more than anywhere else.”
Earlier, the Law Society, which represents solicitors, launched a scathing attack on the justice department, accusing it of “unacceptable ineptitude” and claiming officials had failed to take into account the full volume of work going through the courts.
Michael Robinson, president of the Law Society Northern Ireland, said he viewed the reduction in legal aid funds as an attack on access to justice for the most vulnerable.
“What we are witness to is a clear case of a ‘slash and dash’ approach to legal aid budgets without any informed consideration of the real value of legal aid services, of the work and representation which is undertaken by solicitors, and of the implications of the proposals on the community at large,” he said.
Mr Ford acknowledged there were historic issues around forecasting costs but said significant work had been done to tackle the problem since the devolution of policing and justice powers.
He said: “One of the key ways in which we seek to improve forecasting is to seek to introduce standard costs which are already making forecasting for the criminal costs much better.”
Legal aid is the system where the government pays the cost of lawyers for those who can not afford to pay.
It is higher in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the world. Last year it was over £100 million – £51 million of which was for civil cases such as divorce, child custody battles and judicial reviews – 43 per cent higher than England and Wales.