I have obtained figures for legal aid that demonstrate that while the minister and Department of Justice were talking about reducing legal aid, from 2010/11 to 2014/15 it continued to rise.
The new minister Clare Sugden, in response to a question from me, revealed that costs had risen from £98m in 2010/11 to £111m in 2014/15, a 15% rise when the previous minister had targeted it for reduction.
The plans to cut Northern Ireland’s legal aid bill were one of the key proposals introduced by the previous justice minister.
Many people will find it unacceptable however that given the public have been forced to endure a period of austerity, that the legal profession can appear to continue unaffected.
The Audit Office recently concluded that the series of reforms introduced by David Ford failed, but it seems inconceivable that the minister was not aware during the process that costs were continuing to rise. At the time when the public were being told all the measures were put in place, spend during the three intervening years was all above £107m.
The Executive has many priorities where finances could be directed and vital public services have faced difficult cuts whilst legal aid costs continued to rise. Indeed, Mr Ford closed courthouses to save modest amounts of money and in my own constituency, a busy courthouse in Lisburn was closed to save less than £200,000.
It is imperative that the new minister curtails spending on legal aid in a way the past minister should have but failed to achieve.
Talking the talk is not enough, real tangible actions which achieve outcomes is required.
Edwin Poots, Lagan Valley MLA