Concerns surrounding Legal Aid Reform were foremost in Members thoughts during today’s Question Time with the Minister of Justice, David Ford. Sean Lynch and Alban Maginness each posed questions to the Minister with Mr Lynch pointing out the concern of family lawyers that the most vulnerable will be worst affected by the proposed cuts. The Minister stressed that his departmental officials assessed that there “would be no adverse impact on legal firms” and there is no evidence that there will be any job losses or redundancies whilst acknowledging that practitioners may have to develop more efficient business models and adapt for the future. As part of the consultation process he also invited stakeholders to offer any evidence that might show need for further consideration revealing that legal firms have not produced any figures that would show what the impact might be. “Legal Aid Reform is necessary” as costs continue to exceed budget – a Crown Court case in Northern Ireland currently costs twice as much as those in England.
Mike Nesbitt also asked the Minister for an estimate of potential costs that would be incurred through the implementation of the Haass proposals. However Mr Ford said that his department has not assessed any possible financial implications as there has yet to be an agreement among the five parties on the proposals. He was keen to highlight that there will be “significant human costs” if we fail to deal with the past and that the British and Irish Government’s need to recognise the role they played in the past and assist financially with the comprehensive process to deal with those problems.
The Minister also answered questions on the Youth Justice Review, the implications of the Modern Slavery Bill on the Human Trafficking Bill and the Farmwatch scheme in Ballymena to tackle rural crime. During topical questions Mr Ford fielded questions on subjects such as literacy and numeracy in prisons, the police chief constable appointment process and rural crime.