Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Fourth Report


41. As we have stated earlier in this Report, this is very much an interim assessment of a radical set of proposals for change in the system of legal aid in Northern Ireland, some of which appear to be the subject of considerable opposition. On the other hand, the memorandum from the Central Claims Unit of the Department for Regional Development[78] appears to make a good case for changes to reduce the scope for abuse of legal aid. We welcome the Government's willingness to consult widely on the implementation of its proposals and to involve interested parties fully in their further development. We welcome, too, the Government's assurance that the proposals are consistent both with its obligations under the Human Rights Act 1998 and with the Court Service's equality obligations under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.[79]

42. We have some concerns, though, about the overall funding arrangements proposed. Within an overall aggregate provision of funds which is fixed, one element, the provision for criminal legal aid, will be essentially demand led. As a consequence, overall provision for civil legal aid may be held down, in order to ensure that an adequate contingency provision remains for unexpected demands on the criminal side. We will be interested to learn how the Government intends to manage the overall expenditure block, in order to ensure the maximum flexibility and overall use of the funds made available for legal aid, advice and assistance in Northern Ireland.

43. We recognise that the Government has now taken a decision in principle in favour of the broad thrust of the reforms originally put forward in the Consultation Document. Because many of the proposals in the White Paper remain subject to further development, we have, in general, refrained from making specific recommendations.

78  Appendix 14, p. 63. Back

79  Q 61-63. Back

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