Budget worries at the fore as Northern Ireland begins new legal year
A decade of budget cuts has left Northern Ireland’s justice system at risk of being unable to deliver services, maintain court buildings and pay lawyers on time, the Lady Chief Justice, Dame Siobhan Keegan, has warned.
Delivering her address on the opening of the new legal year yesterday, Dame Siobhan said the Department of Justice has suffered a real-terms cut of around £380 million in the past 12 years despite the health and education budgets growing.
“The public do not readily see the serious problems that face the justice system such as the high cost of maintaining the court estate and difficulties in recruiting and retaining experienced court staff,” she said.
“Many see the courts and court administration as yet another public service rather than an essential aspect of the state just like parliament and government.
“At a time when the control of expenditure is under pressure, the benefits of spending on education, health and infrastructure are obvious but the benefit of spending on justice and its modernisation and the remedying of problems is not.”
Setting out her priorities for the coming year, Dame Siobhan revived proposals that the Northern Ireland courts should be reorganised as a non-ministerial department (NMD), following the Irish and Scottish model.
This model — which has been proposed at various points since 2007 — would help to mitigate the uncertainty created by the lack of government, she argued, as well as allowing for resources to be used more efficiently.
The Lady Chief Justice said she had an “extremely helpful” meeting with the chief justices of Ireland and Scotland and the chief executives of the respective courts services earlier this year, which highlighted the benefits of the NMD model.
She said: “I believe that the NMD model can benefit the administration of justice. It allows the judiciary to use our practical and operational insight to ensure that the budget for running the court administration is used effectively and directed to where it is most needed.”
She added: “In Scotland, while waiting for the legislation to give effect to a NMD, a judicial-led board to run the courts was set up in a shadow form. That is my primary goal for this coming year driven by a concern I have that without structural change justice will not have the optimum support it requires.”
Impact of budget cuts
At the beginning of the previous legal year, Dame Siobhan said she wanted to expand the use of problem-solving justice initiatives.
However, despite being “extremely impressed” with Northern Ireland’s Substance Misuse Court following a visit in April, she said the Family Drugs and Alcohol Court and the proposed new domestic violence court “stand paused or unable to go ahead due to resource issues”.
“This is regrettable because the ‘one-stop shop’ justice model has already been validated and so there is no reason why there cannot be more progress in this area,” she said.
“I personally think the effort is very much warranted when we see the real opportunity for potential savings, both human and financial, that these initiatives can present.”
While welcoming legislative changes in the area of domestic violence and abuse, the Lady Chief Justice again stressed the challenges brought by a lack of resources.
“I think that more can be done in this area with the necessary funding and implementation of outstanding legislative provisions,” she said. “In particular, I see no reason why victims of sexual offences should not have access to legal advice within the system.”
Dame Siobhan also drew attention to the absence of the Northern Ireland Law Commission since it was mothballed in 2015 due to budget issues — leaving Northern Ireland as “the only jurisdiction in the UK and Ireland without a functioning law reform body”.
“This is disappointing, if not embarrassing,” she said. She noted that Mr Justice David Scoffield of the High Court is “striving to identify some limited resource to try to kickstart the work of the Commission but it is essential that long-term funding can be identified to ensure that we have a proper functioning system of law reform in this jurisdiction”.
The Lady Chief Justice concluded her speech: “The administration of justice is an essential underpinning of a stable society, but this needs investment and support. The value of clear leadership is more pressing now than ever and I remain committed to working with others to ensure the delivery of justice in this jurisdiction.”