Legal Aid

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 17th January 2017.

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Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP 3:00 pm, 17th January 2017

7. Mr Dunne asked the Minister of Justice for an update on the reform of legal aid. (AQO 924/16-21)

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

A significant number of reforms to legal aid have already been delivered, including revised remuneration arrangements in criminal courts, with reduced fees, and reductions in the number of cases where it is appropriate to certify two counsel in the Crown Court. Measures have also been put in place to ensure that the appropriate level of representation is granted in civil courts. The reforms have helped to bring the cost of legal aid under control from a high of £106 million in 2014-15 to a projected spend of under £85 million in the current financial year.

I am finalising proposals to introduce a standardised fee structure for legal representation in family cases and for expert witnesses in criminal and civil cases. I am developing proposals for the reform of remuneration for the Court of Appeal. I am also making adjustments to the type of cases that can be funded through legal aid. Administration costs are being addressed through a transformation programme in the Legal Services Agency that includes a digitalisation programme. I am considering the recommendations in the access to justice part 2 report and will bring forward an updated strategy for legal aid. I will consider relevant recommendations from the Gillen review to ensure that we take a strategic approach to reform. Those measures will help to deliver a legal aid system that is fit for purpose in the 21st century and protects access to justice for the most vulnerable.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

I thank the Minister for her answers. Does she recognise the need for the Department of Justice and legal services to implement and drive change? A recent Public Accounts Committee report came to this conclusion:

"What we have found in this inquiry is that these reforms have not been implemented effectively and the costs of legal aid have continued to climb. We are seeing average annual costs of £102 million per year since 2011 — this is simply unacceptable."

Do you recognise that there has been failure, that there is a real fear in the Department of Justice to drive change and that management is weak and ineffective?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

No, I do not see a failure. That PAC report focused on the figure of £106 million, and I recognise, as a number of Members have, that that is not insignificant. However, a figure that we also need to focus on is the projected spend for this year, which is £85 million. That is a £21 million reduction. That is not insignificant. If that is not driving change through my Department, I am not sure what is.

I do not dispute that further reform is needed. That is something that my officials are working on. However, to be fair, we need to give the reforms a chance. Perhaps some people will say, "Well, that's easy for you to say when it's as significant a figure as it is". We have to understand the purpose of legal aid: it is about providing access to justice for the most vulnerable in our society. Should we not do that any more? The figures are so significant because it is demand-led. The only realistic way of reducing legal aid is to stop that demand. Do Members want to tell the most vulnerable in society that they cannot have legal aid?

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

It needs to be controlled.

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

Perhaps it does need to be controlled, Mr Dunne, but you tell me how we can do that without cutting off access to justice for the most vulnerable in our society.