Northern Ireland criminal legal aid review begins

Northern Ireland criminal legal aid review begins

Northern Ireland’s legal professions have given a cautious welcome to a new fundamental review of criminal legal aid led by retired judge Tom Burgess.

The Department of Justice yesterday confirmed that the review, led by Judge Burgess as its independent advisor, has commenced and will be completed within nine months.

A former senior partner of a leading Belfast solicitors’ firm and a former president of the Law Society of Northern Ireland, Judge Burgess has held a number of judicial posts since 1992.

He was a County Court and Crown Court judge from 1992 until 2013. He was appointed Recorder of Londonderry from 1994 to 2001, Recorder of Belfast from 2003 until 2013 and deputy High Court judge from 2013 until 2018.

He is expected to report his findings and recommendations by the end of June 2024, with the scope to make interim recommendations.

David Mulholland, chief executive of The Bar of Northern Ireland, told Irish Legal News the review “comes at a time when the budget for legal aid in Northern Ireland has fallen significantly behind the level of public need and the necessary public policy of speeding up justice”.

He said: “Rates for legal aid work have, when adjusting for inflation, plummeted by between 47 to 58 per cent since 2005.

“The Department of Justice has a statutory obligation to review fees every three years, but these reviews have not been undertaken. Added to this, the Department of Justice has initiated a policy of limiting the money it will pay to barristers and solicitors for work already done.

“This has resulted in an unprecedented and unsustainable position whereby lawyers, unlike other providers of services to government, are expected to wait several further months before receiving payment for work they have already completed.

“In effect, legal professionals are being forced to fund the delivery of this vital, demand led public service, rather than the public purse.

“If publicly funded legal services are to remain viable and address the needs of our society, it is evident that the system needs urgent attention.”

Mr Mulholland added: “This review creates an important opportunity to highlight, through a respected independent advisor, how the system can be restored so that it delivers meaningful access to justice.

“The Bar welcomes this opportunity to engage in these important issues and looks forward to presenting the positive case for sustainably investing in access to justice and the positive social benefits that legal aid can deliver.

“However, in the absence of an Assembly and Executive, it remains unclear if or when the recommendations of the review will be implemented.

“In the meantime, whilst awaiting the wider ranging outcomes from the review, the Bar will therefore continue to press the Department of Justice to meet its already overdue statutory obligations and to stop its unreasonable and unsustainable reliance on dedicated legal professionals to be the credit facility for this vital public service.”

A spokesperson for the Law Society told ILN: “The Law Society of Northern Ireland welcomes the appointment of His Honour Tom Burgess and will engage fully with the review of criminal legal aid.

“This review is long overdue. It must address the crisis in access to justice that has been allowed to develop by — among other things — fees that have not changed for decades and long delays in payment of bills to legal aid practitioners.

“It is no surprise that we have a shrinking pool of legal aid solicitors undertaking legal aid work and we need urgent action to arrest this slide.”

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