Legal Aid: Domestic Abuse Victims

Oral Answers to Questions — Finance – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:15 pm on 14th December 2020.

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Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party 3:15 pm, 14th December 2020

T6. Mr McNulty asked the Minister of Finance to confirm whether what, on 17 November, the Justice Minister said about a proposal to increase access to legal aid for victims of domestic abuse — "That is a risky strategy to take, given that the Finance Minister was clear that he agreed the Bill on the basis that it did not incur additional costs." — remains his position and to state whether he believes that there should be a price on justice for domestic abuse victims. (AQT 836/17-22)

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

No, we are not saying that at all. We are saying that the Committee's amendment was not properly thought through and had much bigger scope to increase the provision of legal aid, including perhaps to some who were accused of being involved in domestic abuse. That amendment clearly needed to be tidied up and the proper ramifications of it thought through.

Not only are there implications for the extent of legal aid available here, but there would be a repercussive impact if people were to seek similar remedies in England, Scotland or Wales based on what had happened here. It was very clear that the Committee needed to be advised on the full extent of the amendment that it had put forward, and I assisted the Justice Minister in providing, from a financial point of view, advice to the Committee. I hope that the Committee will take that away and look at it and that an agreed approach to the Bill can be taken so that we can get the strongest possible protection and support for people through legal aid.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party 3:30 pm, 14th December 2020

Minister, I am not sure that that response cuts through. You are still saying, essentially, that there is a price on justice for domestic abuse victims. Will you commit to working with the Justice Minister and my colleague Sinéad Bradley, who has undertaken an enormous amount of work in this area, to ensure that the Bill passes and that victims of domestic violence are not subjected to coercive financial control using restrictive legal aid rules?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I am not sure whether the Member has not listened to what I have said or whether he has just not understood what I have said. I have said clearly that I am committed to that, but that the Committee, in some of the amendments that it put forward, went far beyond what it was intending to do, so there were unforeseen consequences to some of the proposals that it was making. The Committee needs to understand the consequences of those and get assistance to amend its proposals properly and take them forward. I am committed to seeing the strongest possible legislation, including support for people who require legal aid, but we want to ensure that people who do not deserve that or who we do not intend to be caught up in that amendment do not fall within it. There are consequences beyond that, which I do not believe that the Committee fully either examined or understood, and those must be made clear. When we are voting for legislation in this House, we need to know what we are voting for. Absolute clarity is needed in relation to all of those matters so that we can get the best possible legislation that supports victims of domestic violence.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Members, time is up.