Multimillion-pound cuts to the legal aid budget in Northern Ireland will not cost any lawyers their jobs, Stormont’s Justice Minister has insisted.
David Ford told the Assembly that those in the legal profession warning of the consequences of his efforts to reduce the £100 million annual bill had failed to provide him with evidence there would be redundancies.
But the SDLP’s Alban Maginness, himself a qualified barrister, questioned whether the minister was living in the “real world” with his assertion that such major cut-backs would not have an impact on jobs.
The minister has already implemented measures to reduce the spend on legal aid in criminal cases and is now proposing similar steps with civil cases, stressing that the current total annual outlay is coming in at around £25 million over the £75 million allocated budget.
While much of the criticism of Mr Ford’s policy has centred on whether the measures will limit the public’s access to justice through appropriate legal representation, during Assembly question time he was quizzed by MLAs on the practical impact on the legal profession itself.
The minister said prior to pushing ahead with cuts on both civil and criminal cases, his department had conducted an assessment of the likely consequences.
“The assessment concluded that there would be no adverse impact on legal firms,” he said.
“On the basis of the information currently available there is no evidence that my proposed reforms to legal aid will result in job losses or redundancies.”
But Mr Ford added: “I acknowledge that these reforms may require practitioners to consider more efficient business models and to adapt for the future.”
Mr Maginness was one of a number of political rivals that questioned the minister’s rationale.
“I just wonder whether the minister is living in the real world in terms of suggesting there would be no impact or little impact on firms of solicitors,” he said.
The North Belfast Assembly member added: “How can the minister seriously suggest there would be virtually no impact upon the profession?”
Mr Ford responded: “The unfortunate issue I would address back to Mr Maginness’s legal colleagues is that few of them have been able to give us the detailed figures showing what the impact would be.”
When later asked by Sinn Fein West Belfast MLA Fra McCann whether an independent examination of the effect of the civil legal aid proposals should be commissioned, the minister said: “It would be easier to have an independent examination if those who are making the case that there is an impact were prepared to give the Department of Justice the necessary figures on which to make such an assessment so far, despite many requests, those figures have not been forthcoming.”
Mr Ford said the majority of firms did not overly rely on income from legal aid while a small number of larger firms that did generate significant income from the public purse were best placed to make changes to how they did business.
The minister did concede that “significant issues” had been identified around his proposals regarding representation in the family courts, and his officials would be looking again at those points. But he said the general principle behind his policy was sound.
“The fundamental issue is that legal aid reform is necessary and the costs continue to significantly exceed the budget despite the cuts that have been made over recent years,” he told MLAs.
Legal aid costs in Northern Ireland are substantially higher than elsewhere in the UK.
The cost per head of population was more than £56 in the last financial year, while in England and Wales it was less than £36.
Mr Ford told the Assembly that the legal aid bill for an average crown court case in Northern Ireland is double that of England and Wales.
“That is unsustainable,” he said.