T4. Ms McCorley asked the Minister of Justice, following his earlier statement about his plans to introduce legislation to impose a temporary levy of up to 15% on legal aid payments, how long temporary is likely to be and whether there is a danger that the levy could become permanent. (AQT 2134/11-15)
I assure Ms McCorley that is not my intention that that will be the case. Subject, of course, to Executive and Assembly approval, the intention is that emergency legislation will provide for a levy of up to 15% on bills at the point of payment. The maximum levy to be set in any one year on the basis of the difference between the estimated expenditure and the budget allocated for it is allocated on a year-by-year basis with Assembly approval.
The DOJ's current intention is to have a sunset clause in the primary legislation at the end of the next Assembly mandate in 2021. I stress that the maximum deduction will be 15%. If the calculated deduction is less than 5%, it would not apply at all. The expectation is that, as reforms bed in to ensure that the legal aid system is managed more efficiently and effectively, the reduction would reduce over that time.
I answered something of that point to a colleague earlier. The expectation is that the cuts would apply evenly across all bills because there is no other way of doing it. At the same time, we are looking at instituting the wider reforms. I highlighted private family law proceedings where one ex-partner can make life extremely difficult for another by continually going back to court over minor issues of precise times for and duration of access to children, for example. It is certainly the case, as a number of MLAs have put to me, that an ex-partner on legal aid frequently does that against an ex-partner who does not qualify for it. Those are the kinds of issues that we have to address. The important point is to maintain the basic provision of legal aid for the key hearing and then to ensure that there are better ways of mediating to deal with those sorts of issues that, frankly, should not have a court hearing, such as determining whether access is half an hour earlier or later.