Northern Ireland justice cuts will cause ‘generational harm’
Proposed cuts to Northern Ireland’s justice budget have the “potential to cause generational harm”, the Law Society and the Bar have warned.
In a joint submission to the Department of Finance and the Department of Justice, the representative bodies said many solicitor firms “would simply not survive” if the draft budget for 2022-25 is agreed in its present form.
An analysis of the draft budget by the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council found that justice would see its funding cut by between one and two per cent while every other department will see increases.
In contrast, there has been a record increase in justice funding in England and Wales and the Scottish government has launched grant schemes to support young professionals into legal aid practice.
“The predominance of small solicitor practices and the already scarce access to legal representation in rural communities should give the Executive pause before proceeding with cuts that would threaten jobs and leave rural communities in ‘legal aid deserts’,” the Law Society and the Bar said.
According to their submission, Northern Ireland’s legal aid budget has consistently averaged £82 million in recent years, the figure which the Legal Services Agency (LSA) suggests is the minimum baseline funding to allow bills to be paid within eight weeks of submission.
However, the LSA’s opening budget in 2021/22 was less than £75.7 million and required significant top-ups through in-year monitoring rounds, creating uncertainty and fluctuating payment times.
If the legal aid budget is cut by a further two per cent – along the lines of the Department of Justice’s budget consequences paper – then it would be just £74 million, which the professions say “will cause irreparable damage to the network of legal aid providers in Northern Ireland”.
The paper adds: “The only way for the LSA to accommodate a reduction in funding is to delay paying bills. The LSA has projected that standard fee bills which are currently paid within eight weeks would face a 47-week wait for payment by 2025.
“No businesses can afford to wait up to a year for payment. Small businesses in particular cannot survive when starved of cashflow in this manner.
“Suppliers of services have a statutory right to be paid for the services they deliver, and all suppliers require prompt payment of bills for work undertaken to maintain the viability of their business.”
David Mulholland, chief executive of the Bar of Northern Ireland, said: “These budget proposals have the potential to put many legal professionals out of business and force others to withdraw vitally needed services from communities. The impact would not fall evenly and there is the potential to very significantly disadvantage rural communities.
“The legal profession in Northern Ireland is urgently calling for a ring-fenced legal aid budget of not less than £82m to secure access to justice.”
David Lavery, chief executive of the Law Society of Northern Ireland, added: “Legal professionals are in the business of helping people – quite often the most vulnerable people facing the most challenging circumstances.
“Whether it is a parent seeking access to their child in a matrimonial dispute or someone defending a criminal charge, everyone deserves access to effective legal advice and representation.”