Access to Justice Review

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:00 am on 13th September 2011.

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Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance 11:00 am, 13th September 2011

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the Access to Justice review. Members will have heard me speak previously, in this Chamber and elsewhere, of the opportunities that the devolution of justice provided us with, including the opportunity to reshape our justice system to fit the needs of Northern Ireland. Members will also recall that, with that in mind, in September 2010 I commissioned a fundamental review to develop our thinking on how best to ensure access to justice in our society. Today, I am pleased to publish the report of the review and to begin a period of public consultation on its findings and recommendations.

Fair and effective access to justice is an essential element of getting justice right; it is critical to building confidence and is an important part of our vision for a future justice system. Our present system is built on providing financial assistance to those who could not otherwise find the money to pay for legal representation. However, I wanted a review that would examine other approaches and better ways of using the funds available. I thank Jim Daniell and his team for their very detailed work over many months to produce the report. I also thank those who offered comments or who otherwise contributed to it.

The report is a comprehensive analysis, containing 159 conclusions and recommendations. I encourage Members to read it carefully. Since I became Minister of Justice, legal aid has been one of the areas prompting members of the public to write to me. I know that many Members have also received correspondence about situations where the system appears not to work well. In my replies I have said that I expect the report to provide ideas for solving some of those problems, and I believe that it does. Public consultation on the report will last three months. Many people and organisations made representations to the review team as its work progressed, and I thank all those who offered ideas or who shared their experience of the system. It is important that all who wish to comment be given the opportunity to tell us what they think needs to be changed.

Having considered those comments, I will make a formal response in the new year. However, I reassure Members that the period of public consultation will not hold up the delivery of changes that we are already making and which have been endorsed by the report. In the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 the Assembly legislated for new powers that will allow the recovery of legal aid costs from convicted defendants who can pay. That development has been endorsed by the report, and I will shortly be publishing proposals for commencing those powers.

The report suggests that responsibility for financial assessment for such a means test should fall to the Legal Services Commission (LSC). It also proposes that the Legal Services Commission should take on the responsibility for decisions to certify for the use of counsel in Magistrate’s Courts. That responsibility currently rests with the judiciary, and I will want to consider carefully the views of the Lord Chief Justice and the Attorney General about the proposed change.

There are other areas where the findings of the report coincide with work already under way. The report highlights the importance of continuing to scrutinise legal aid expenditure, noting that, over the past financial year, spending on legal aid in Magistrate’s Courts rose by around 38%. That was partly because of an increase in the volume of cases, but higher average costs also appear to have played a large part. A review of legal aid fees paid for cases in the Magistrate’s Courts began last month, and that exercise will consider the issues identified in the report.

Running alongside the review of Magistrate’s Courts fees will be a review of the fees paid for legal advice given to those under arrest and held in police stations. That is particularly important for people being investigated for criminal offences, and it has been endorsed as a requirement by European human rights case law. Good early advice is essential to ensure that a defendant’s rights are protected. The report recommends improvements to current arrangements, particularly the establishment of a more formal duty solicitor scheme across Northern Ireland. There are useful models for that in other jurisdictions, and, picking up on those recommendations, the review that has just begun will look at how our system could be improved.

The report notes the public concern that has been expressed about what appear to be disproportionate costs to the legal aid fund and to the justice system as a whole when defendants elect for trial by jury at the Crown Court in cases of alleged dishonesty involving goods or cash of relatively low value. In the past year, there were a small number of high profile cases. Although the report concludes that the right to elect for trial by jury should remain, it makes helpful proposals on how costs could be contained.

The report considers diversionary measures and alternatives to prosecution for less serious first- and second-time offenders, including fixed penalty notices, prosecutorial fines and conditional cautions. In recent years, some progress has been made in Northern Ireland, especially in the field of restorative justice, but the report suggests that a more ambitious approach could yield positive results. It suggests that Northern Ireland, with a centralised prosecution service and the PSNI covering the whole of the jurisdiction, is particularly well suited to such an approach. The report commends, in particular, the approach taken in Scotland, and we will want to look carefully at that.

The report looks at the possibility of introducing one standard fee to apply whether there is a guilty plea or the case goes to trial — as is the case in Scotland — as a measure to avoid unnecessarily prolonging some cases. It suggests that further research is needed, and I have asked officials to take the matter forward as part of the work already under way through the Speeding up Justice programme.

Members will know that, in recent months, in response to the withdrawal by many solicitors from Crown Court cases, I had to consider the emergency introduction of a public defender service to ensure that unrepresented defendants would have access to the legal advice and assistance to which they are entitled under the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998. I am pleased to confirm that such withdrawal action has now ended and that the contingency plans that were being developed have not been necessary.

The report notes, however, that public defender arrangements are in place in Scotland and in England and Wales. Although the report emphasises the benefits of the independent private sector legal professions, particularly their clear independence from the state, it states that it is right to undertake contingency planning to fill gaps in supply. Emergency measures are not required immediately, but, in response to the report, I would welcome comments on whether such a service should be introduced here.

The report rightly records that the interests of victims and witnesses are central to the justice system, and it notes the work that has been done and continues to be developed by the Department of Justice, the Criminal Justice Board and a range of public and voluntary sector agencies. That work remains a high priority for my Department, and, in the coming months, it is something on which we will work closely with the Justice Committee.

In looking at civil legal aid, the report considers how to give priority to the most vulnerable in society and how to encourage early dispute resolution. It finds that cases concerning family and children account for 70% of the current spend of civil legal aid, which is clearly a problem that needs to be addressed. Unlike the current proposal in England and Wales, which would remove private family law cases from the scope of civil legal aid, the review team recommends that legal aid should continue to be available for those who are financially eligible in such cases, but that the system should discourage the use of the court to prolong or reopen disputes. The report notes that many cases do not necessarily need to be resolved in a court hearing, and it recommends the use of mediation, collaborative interventions or other alternatives to court proceedings. It makes a number of detailed proposals on legal aid costs in family cases. For example, as legal aid for undefended divorce cases that are heard in chambers requires a minimum of legal work, it does not warrant the presence of counsel. The report proposes that legal aid funding in such cases should be limited to an appropriate standard fee.

The report also identifies public law children’s cases as an area in which costs could be reduced without risking harm to the quality of the outcome. The number of parties that receive publicly funded representation, the level of representation, the type of legal representation that is appropriate to the court tier and the use of expert witnesses are identified as other areas in which savings might be made. In that area, the report’s findings go much wider than legal aid, and it recommends that there be a fundamental review of family justice in Northern Ireland. That is a key issue, and I would very much welcome views on the proposal.

I support the finding that many cases do not necessarily need to be resolved in a court hearing and the recommendation for the use of mediation and other alternatives. My views on that underpinned my decision to commission the review. Some of those are already being used in Northern Ireland, but the report recommends that they be developed further. For example, neighbour disputes and antisocial behaviour may be suitable for community-based alternative dispute resolution rather than applications before the court for injunctions or prosecutions.

One significant area that was examined was money damages cases. The report recommends that conditional fee arrangements — that is, no win no fee — should be introduced in Northern Ireland, with safeguards to prevent an escalation in costs with, perhaps, an insurance-based solution that enables plaintiffs to insure against the legal cost of losing.

The cost of civil legal aid, the importance of ensuring that limited resources are properly targeted and the need to ensure value for money are also recurring themes. We have already made significant changes that will reduce the cost of criminal legal aid, and the report recommends significant changes to legal aid fees in civil cases. It proposes the introduction of a standard fee structure and harmonisation of the rules for financial eligibility, and it suggests that consideration be given to increasing the contributions from those who can afford it and the inclusion of housing equity in the calculation of capital limits. On value for money, it recommends the establishment of a statutory registration scheme for providers of legally aided services, together with proportionate and cost-effective systems for monitoring quality.

The report recognises that contracting and best-value tendering could play a part in enabling market pressures to secure efficiencies in service provision. That issue is also addressed in the recent Criminal Justice Inspection report on the use of legal services by the criminal justice system, which was published before the summer. The report also considers the establishment of alternative business models that enable solicitors, barristers and other professionals to work together in one organisation, as already happens in England and Wales. We will want to look carefully at the experience from other jurisdictions in considering that.

Section 8, which is entitled ‘Living within Budget and the Options for Further Savings’, sets out some detailed proposals for savings. I will consider them very carefully. The report has also made proposals for how we manage access to justice, recommending that all legal aid policy, which is currently split between the Courts and Tribunals Service and the Legal Services Commission, should be brought together in the Department of Justice as part of the new access to justice directorate. However, it states — I completely agree with this principle — that individual decisions on the granting of legal aid should be taken independently of government or political influence. It concludes that the body that is charged with such decisions should remain at arm’s length from the Department. Again, I completely agree with that principle. Whatever changes we make to structures will be to improve efficiency, reduce unnecessary costs and allow us to bring forward necessary reforms as quickly as possible.

The report is very comprehensive, and, once again, I thank Jim Daniell and the small review team for the amount of work that they completed in just 12 months. It is impossible to do justice to it in a brief statement today, but it provides a broad and far-reaching agenda of work for us to take forward in the months and years ahead. Given its importance, I encourage Members and the wider public to read it and comment as part of the consultation.

Photo of Raymond McCartney Raymond McCartney Sinn Féin 11:15 am, 13th September 2011

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an ráiteas seo ar maidin. In the absence of the Chairperson, Paul Givan, I speak on behalf of the Committee. Mr Speaker, you have provided with me some latitude to ask my question, so thank you very much. [Interruption.]

Photo of Raymond McCartney Raymond McCartney Sinn Féin

Níor chuala mé sin. I thank the Minister for his statement, and, of behalf of the Committee, I welcome the publication of the final report, ‘Access to Justice Review’. The Committee looks forward to discussing the findings and conclusions of what is, as the Minister said, a very detailed report. We look forward to seeing Jim Daniell and his team and, no doubt, the Minister, before the Committee. Given the breadth and scope of the report, does the Minister intend to prioritise the various areas and recommendations that it covers when considering the implementation programme? Will he seek views on what the priority areas should be? What will be the timeline for that consultation? It is important that the Minister say whether there are any recommendations that he feels that the Department can take forward in the absence of the consultation process being completed. That concludes my remarks on behalf of the Committee.

On behalf of my party, I welcome the report. We look forward to the Minister and to Jim Daniell’s review team coming before the Committee. Can the Minister assure the Assembly that the guiding principles will be fair and equitable access to justice?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I thank Mr McCartney in his role as Deputy Chairperson of the Committee — I think that it is the first time that he has had the opportunity to speak first in that role — and as a member of his party. I welcome the fact that, in both capacities, he has seen virtues in the report. I have no doubt that, in both of those capacities, he will engage thoroughly with Jim Daniell and, no doubt, with my officials and me.

He asked about the prioritisation of recommendations. In my statement I made it clear that some aspects were already covered in the 2011 Act, on which we will be able to carry forward work at an early stage. In other respects, when I say that the report is now out for consultation for 12 weeks, it is because, naively, I put it out for consultation genuinely seeking the views of the public and of the Assembly, particularly the Justice Committee.

Given that there are so many recommendations and that it is such a complex report, there will need to be a significant degree of prioritisation. I will certainly welcome the views that come into that, because I am determined that we should make as much progress as fast as possible on the spirit of partnership that the Department and the Committee have adopted so far. On that basis, we will be taking those forward, and the key principle of fair and equal access to justice for all, which the Member highlighted when speaking for his party, is a key principle for us.

We looked at affordability, and the report has considered that. It has also been doing that in a way that ensures that we get access to justice; however, that may not necessarily be the adversarial court system that we have been used to. Nonetheless, we will seek to ensure access to justice. For example, that is why we specifically recommend that some issues remain in the scope of assistance in Northern Ireland that have been removed from scope in England and Wales.

Photo of Sydney Anderson Sydney Anderson DUP

I, too, thank the Minister for his statement, and I place on record my thanks to Jim Daniell and his team for a detailed and extensive report. The Minister referred to the report’s recommendations on diversionary measures on the community-based alternative dispute resolution. Although I understand the need to avoid expensive court cases where possible, some people might have concerns about softer options. What are the Minister’s views?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I thank Mr Anderson for his welcome of the report. When looking at alternative dispute resolution, particularly around the civil area, we are not necessarily looking at something that might be categorised as either a hard or a soft option. We are looking at something that seeks conciliation and a better result for all parties involved than we frequently see from an adversarial court system. Take the different methods of working adopted by the Youth Justice Agency: I certainly do not accept the premise that some options around youth conferencing are in any way easy compared with some of the more traditional systems. Indeed, the concept of a young person having to take restorative action, perhaps by meeting and apologising to the victim and doing community service, may be significantly harder for them than seeing a parent pay a fine for them.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

I thank the Minister for his statement and, indeed, commend the authors for the detailed and comprehensive report that is before us. There is much to think about and discuss. Given the complexities of the issues in the report and the necessity to engage not just with the Committee and the Assembly but with members of the public beyond the 12-week consultation process, will the Minister outline to us how he envisages we will deal with this in meaningful, bite-sized pieces?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I thank Mr McCrea for his positive words. I outlined that to some extent in response to the Committee Deputy Chair. First, there is a consultation process, and that will enable individuals and, in particular, the Committee, of which Mr McCrea is a member, to highlight priorities for action. The Department will, to some extent, have to reflect the importance of addressing particular issues. Some issues will be easier to address, and some will require primary legislation, which will take a bit longer. However, we will ensure that we take the widest possible view. Then, as each individual aspect of the review is implemented, there will be further opportunities for consultation and for public comment.

So, I do not see the 12-week process as the be-all and end-all. It will be the start as we seek to see how we will implement the review, and it will not be done in this Assembly session. It will take a considerable amount of time to carry through all the recommendations, but I believe that we have an extremely valuable opportunity to provide a justice system that works better for all our community. However, I will certainly be keen to hear everyone’s word on the best ways to do that and on which points to implement first.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

I declare an interest as a member of the Bar. The report is comprehensive, and it would be wrong to be premature in making any assessment of it. Is the Minister prepared to protect access to justice, make it into a paramount principle and not sacrifice the quality of justice and legal services simply because of cost?

Might I ask one further question, Mr Speaker, about a specific aspect of the report? The report says that the Legal Services Commission should take on responsibility for decisions to certify for the use of counsel in the Magistrate’s Court. That responsibility currently rests with the judiciary. Is there not an implication in that for the independence of the judiciary? If one is to remove that function from the Magistrate’s Court and from district judges, will that not affect the independence of the judiciary?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I am grateful to Mr Maginness for his work, and I notice that he at least, unlike some others, admits that he is asking more than one question. The specific point about the LSC certifying for counsel is an issue that will require considerable consultation with, among others, the judiciary. I am not sure that I share his concerns about the independence of the judiciary if that power is transferred from the judiciary to the LSC. However, I suspect that there will be a variety of views on that issue, not least from his professional colleagues.

His other question was about protecting access to justice. I referred to those relatively minor cases where people have elected for trial by jury, and the report recommends that that be preserved despite the public concern that has been expressed. The idea that we seek measures to ensure that there is no abuse to finances while preserving the opportunity for a full trial before a jury is an indication that the report is about preserving access to justice, and I am determined to ensure that we maintain that. We will not go down some of the routes that England and Wales have adopted, which have been thoroughly negative in that respect.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance 11:30 am, 13th September 2011

I thank the Minister for coming to us this morning, and congratulations to Mr Daniell on the report prepared for us. I also congratulate the Minister on the innovative steps that he has already taken on access to justice, particularly in settling legal aid matters, over the summer. The alternative dispute resolution proposals are highly innovative and welcome, but will the Minister pilot some of those, as appropriate, so that people can see them working and to prove to the sceptics that ADR is a real and viable alternative in the areas that he outlined?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

That is clearly five in a row, but at least we have a welcome for the report, and I should be grateful for that.

The piloting of ADR mechanisms is the sort of issue about which I hope that the Committee will give me its views. There are significant opportunities for piloting alternative methods. For example, the current president of the Law Society sees particular benefits in mediation as part of his field of professional expertise. From my background as a social worker, I see significant need to move away from the direction in which family law cases have gone in recent years, which is to become excessively adversarial rather than have the opportunity to promote mediation. Whether we can run pilots in geographical patches or simply look at discrete areas of work and see how we apply them is the sort of issue that we need to follow through on in the consultation, but it is one on which I will be keen to hear views.

Clearly, there is an issue around family cases and some around minor monetary cases, where these things can perhaps be piloted in one area of work. It would be worth looking at that to see that we get the best possible opportunities for people to resolve such difficulties in a way that is more satisfying to both parties.

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I also thank the Minister for his statement. There is a lack of legal advice and legal representation in cases involving children and young people in issues outside family law. Children’s risks go beyond public law and family law justice. Legal representation is absent at education or mental health tribunals that children and young people go to. How will the Minister address that deficit?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I thank the Member for her welcome. I am not an expert on the operation of education tribunals. I understood that legal representation was available in mental health tribunals, but I will check that point and get back to her.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. The review states that the right to elect for trial by jury “should remain as now”. However, it suggests:

“ways of keeping the incidence and costs of these cases within bounds.”

Does the Minister agree that this is a fundamental tenet of democracy and that he should be careful about tampering with it?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I agree with the Member that the concept of trial by jury has been recognised by the report as a fundamental tenet, and if that is a tenet of our justice system, I have no intention of interfering with it. I will be interested to see whether others have comments to make during the next three months.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I, too, welcome the report. Does the Minister agree that the welfare of children is paramount in our society — I am sure that he does — and that the burden of costs should not be prohibitive and a consideration in ensuring that children get access to justice?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I agree entirely that the welfare of children is a very serious issue that at times has to be addressed by the justice system. However, when we look at alternative methods of dealing with family and children’s cases, the issue for me is one not just of cost but of what is the most satisfactory resolution to sometimes extremely difficult family problems.

From my professional background, I see little evidence that an adversarial court system is necessarily the best way in which to promote the long-term interests of a child who, for example, may have to get on with both parents in the future. That is why I believe that there are significant benefits from some of the ADR proposals in the report as an alternative to adversarial court systems. However, there will be occasions when it will clearly be necessary for people to resort to courts. Indeed, I know that, in certain circumstances at the moment, judges require people to seek a degree of mediation about things such as arrangements for children’s welfare in divorce cases. It is a matter of ensuring that we find the best way of meeting the needs of children, rather than seeking any particular legal form of that.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I welcome the commissioning of the report by the Minister and the substantive and comprehensive report that has been brought forward by its authors. Given that the report appears to consider a fixed means test for eligibility for civil legal aid, is there a concern that that might reduce, rather than increase, fair access to justice?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I thank the Member for his question. There is a danger that if we apply a fixed means test that is too low there could be the issue of reducing access. If you look at the work that the Department has done over the past year in dealing with the means test issue for non-molestation orders, you will see that is not the way that we have been seeking to operate. We will seek to ensure that any means test is applied at a suitable level. However, it is also the case that, at times, people who could afford to fund their legal cases benefit from legal aid arrangements. We need to strike the right balance while ensuring that we get access to justice for the most needy in our society.

Photo of Michael Copeland Michael Copeland UUP

I also join in the congratulations that have been flowing towards the Minister. I particularly welcome the aspects of the report that deal with family law. As many of us know, it is an area that is sodden with tears and, on occasions, poisoned with venom. Will the Minister, in so far as he can, undertake to establish and identify those cases in which law is used as an impediment to justice and where, in the event of a breakdown, one partner who has access to legal aid vigorously pursues the other partner who does not, almost to the point of bankruptcy? That matter has important relevance to these proceedings.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I thank the Member. I think that he is possibly the first one to congratulate the Minister, as opposed to Jim Daniell and the team, so I will take that as a compliment; thank you very much.

However, he raises a serious point and one that I know he and other Members will have heard about, as I have, which is the issue of family disputes where one partner is entitled to legal aid and the other is not — perhaps somebody with fairly modest means, but who falls just outside the scope of legal aid — and the difficulties that arise with multiple court applications. Those issues need to be addressed as an abuse of process, and they do nothing for the welfare of an ex-partner or children. We need to cover those issues to ensure that we get the best possible resolution and that we deal with those multiple applications. There are references to it in the report, and I have no doubt that Mr Copeland and others will comment on it during the consultation period.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

In these times of austerity, it is right and proper that we should discuss how we save money. I am sure that the Minister will agree that the court system still has all the trappings of bygone days when money was plentiful and men wore gowns and wigs. What plans does he have to dispense with those kinds of practices and bring the court system into the real world where the ordinary working-class people, who frequent it largely, can identify with it?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

Even by the standards of creativity that apply in the Chamber, that was a fairly good one. To the best of my knowledge, no part of the legal aid budget funds the purchase of gowns or wigs, save in so far as the recipients of fees through the legal aid system may choose to buy their own. Perhaps Mr Maginness, who is chortling to the side, could advise his colleague on his personal practice in such respects.

However, if Mr Dallat is making a valid point about the issue of access to justice and the courts being seen to be accessible and places where normal people do not feel intimidated by an atmosphere of wigs and gowns, then I agree with him. I welcome the fact that there have been moves in that direction in recent years. However, it lies with the judiciary and the professional practices of solicitors and barristers to work through at various levels as to how they choose to present themselves in court, rather than being anything that the Minister should interfere in any more than I have done already.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I declare an interest, of course, as a member of the Northern Ireland Bar. I regret that Mr Dallat would deny the follicularly challenged of us the option of having some head covering, but there it is.

There are so many things in the report, some of which one can empathise and agree with and others about which one would have very severe reservations. The report is entitled ‘Access to Justice Review Northern Ireland’, but my concern is that some proposals within it will, in fact, deliver the very opposite and diminish access to justice. On the specifics of civil legal aid, for example, the proposition that the equity that someone holds in their house should become a capital consideration — [Interruption.]

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I encourage the Member to come to his question.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I am sure that you heard the exhortations to that effect. That the capital —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. I insist that the Member come to his question. The Member will know that I have given a number of Members quite a bit of latitude this morning. Standing Orders are clear that there should be one question to a ministerial statement. However, because of the nature of this morning’s statement, I have been prepared to give Members some latitude in coming to their question.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Of course, you have allowed one Member two questions, and you have not yet allowed me one, yet it might be thought that I might know something about this subject.

With regard to civil legal aid, an imposition is placed on people who might be asset rich, in the sense that they have a house, but cash poor. How can taking into account the fact of house ownership and the value of that house ever help access to justice? Will that not, as one specific, diminish access to justice? Will going down the road of the American system of no win, no fee not increase damages, as lawyers walk away with 30% and 40% of the damages awarded, rather than save money?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

Despite the remarks about those follicularly challenged people entitled to wear wigs in court and the fact that I, as one appearing in the witness box, has never been able to do so, Mr Allister raises a significant point about the no win, no fee proposals, which the report recognises. There are significant issues within which checks and balances would be required, but no doubt he and others will wish to comment on that specific proposal as one way of looking forward. Similarly, specific issues, such as the sorts of amounts of capital that are taken into account and whether they include such things as equity in housing, will require detailed consideration. I do not think that it is something that we will resolve here this morning. It is an issue that needs to be followed through, because Mr Allister makes what some people will see as a valid point and others will see as a plea on behalf of those who have capital.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. The Minister mentioned alternative dispute resolution. In his statement, he referred specifically to community-based alternative dispute resolution and its use in family circumstances. Not all civil disputes outside of family disputes lend themselves to community-based solutions. What action will the Minister take to encourage the development of alternative dispute resolutions in other areas of civil law?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I thank Mr Weir for that point. It is clear that a variety of issues come under the general term of alternative dispute resolution, some of which are community-based, as he highlighted, and others that, I suspect, may well provide openings for those with legal qualifications. Some of those who are involved in arbitration, for example, have specific legal backgrounds that would be of benefit in that regard. We are looking at a range of issues. Family matters are dear to my heart because of my background. I also think that a number of minor business disputes, for example, might fit into some form of slightly more formal but still alternative process. One of the key issues is to ensure that we find alternative methods that do not necessarily shut off the option of going to court, if necessary, as a last resort. They should, however, incentivise the reaching of an agreement, rather than incentivising the maximum level of disagreement, as sometimes happens in an adversarial system.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

Could the Minister survive on £680,000 a year? A barrister who appeared before the Justice Committee complained that he would have to survive on that as a result of the Minister’s savage cuts. My heart bleeds for him. There is a lot of concern about the fact that legal aid expenditure has increased by 38% in a single financial year, as the Daniell report indicates. Surely we need to put a cap on the amount that any individual senior counsel can earn. Let us put it at, say, £300,000 — they could survive on that.

Secondly, is it not time for the Minister to state what each senior counsel is given and how much money they have got from legal aid over the past five years?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance 11:45 am, 13th September 2011

I am not sure how many questions were in that one, Mr Speaker.

I should make it clear to Mr Wells that the specific reference to a 38% increase in costs was specifically in relation to legal aid in the Magistrate’s Courts in the past financial year. As a member of the Committee, Mr Wells will know that he has played his part in reducing Crown Court costs in the past while.

I am not sure whether there are any means by which the Department of Justice could cap the total amount paid to barristers in any one year, even if it should do so. I suspect that the issue has to be to ensure that there is value for money in the time spent by lawyers who are paid from the public purse for the work that they seek to do.

I shall ignore his first question about what salary I could live on, but I think the Member knows that Ministers are paid somewhat less than the figure he quoted.

There are serious issues here. We need to recognise that for many solicitors and barristers, particularly solicitors, in current circumstances and in areas of work such as conveyancing, there are relatively low earnings compared to a few years ago. Not all barristers and solicitors are earning £600,000 a year, or whatever it is. The only issue that I am concerned about is that those paid from the public purse provide value for money and that we find the best way of getting justice for the citizen rather than the best way of putting money into the pockets of lawyers, expert witnesses or anybody else. The issue has to be access to justice for the citizens of Northern Ireland.