Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Fourth Report


The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has agreed to the following Report:—



1. Concerns have been expressed from time to time about aspects of the operation of legal aid in Northern Ireland. For example, the Comptroller and Auditor General qualified his opinion on the Legal Aid Fund (Northern Ireland) accounts for both 1996-97 and 1997- 98 because of the number of ineligible claimants who were awarded legal aid.[2] Following other concerns expressed to us, we decided, in February 2000, to conduct an inquiry into certain aspects of criminal legal aid, and sought written evidence from the Northern Ireland Court Service and the Lord Chancellor's Legal Aid Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland.[3]

2. In February 1998, the Government had announced a review of the provision and administration of legal aid in Northern Ireland. Following this review, a consultation document on legal aid reform in Northern Ireland, entitled "Public Benefit and the Public Purse", was published in June 1999. The Government subsequently announced its decisions in "The Way Ahead", a White Paper on legal aid reform in Northern Ireland, which was published in September 2000.[4]

3. In the light of the publication of the White Paper, we decided to broaden the scope of our inquiry and adopted the following terms of reference:

    To examine the Government's proposals for the future of legal aid in Northern Ireland, as set out in Cm. 4849.

We also invited all those who had commented to the Government on the consultation document to submit written evidence, and a number have done so.[5] We also received, from the authors, copies of a number of papers originally submitted to the Government as part of its consultation process. We have arranged for these to be publicly available.[6] We are most grateful to all who have contributed written material.

4. We have taken oral evidence on only one occasion and the witnesses were Lord Bach, Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, Mr Glenn Thompson, Director General, and Mr Alan Hunter, Director of Legal Aid, Northern Ireland Court Service.[7] This provided valuable elucidation both of the background to the reform proposals and of progress to date. We would like to thank the witnesses for their contribution to the inquiry.

5. We would normally not have reported until we had taken a wider range of oral evidence from amongst those who had made written submissions. However, in the present circumstances, and given that the Government hope that there will be draft legislation by autumn 2001,[8] we considered that publication now of what must, by its very nature, be an interim report, would be a useful contribution to the continuing debate which the Government wishes to encourage as it seeks to implement its proposals. We have, of course, taken full account of the written submissions we received. In view of the very limited scope for us to take oral evidence, these assumed a particular importance in the context of this inquiry.

2  Appendix 16, p. 65. Back

3  Referred to hereafter as "The Legal Aid Advisory Committee". Back

4  Cm. 4849. Back

5  A list of submissions to the Committee published as Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence may be found at p. xv. Back

6  See p. xvi. Back

7  The Northern Ireland Court Service is a Department of the Lord Chancellor, established under the Judicature (Northern Ireland) Act 1978. Back

8  Q 4. Back

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