Cost of civil legal aid trebles in past year

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The cost of civil legal aid trebled in the past year, the Justice Committee chairman said on 11 February 2013.

Paul Givan explained that changes to criminal legal aid fees had resulted in a significant reduction in fees and costs but that there had now been a large increase in the number of complex higher-cost civil legal aid cases.

"In 2011/12 there were 32 cases costing £2.6m compared to this year when there are likely to be over 100 cases at a cost of £8m," he said.

"Civil legal aid now seems to be where the pot of money is for people to access.

"Clearly when you operate a system whereby there's very little justification or rationale for the submission of fees, then that leads it to be open for exploitation as criminal legal aid was exploited repeatedly by those in the legal profession."

Mr Givan was speaking during a debate on the Executive's final budget plans for 2012-2013.

The DUP Lagan Valley MLA said it was "totally unacceptable" that legal aid continued to exceed the budget set out for it and it was one of the main pressures facing the department.

He said this year the total legal aid spend could be up to £107m compared to an available budget of £85m.

Mr Givan said the Department of Justice intended to fund this shortfall from a number of easements identified by other spending areas.

He said the committee would question why there had been such a large increase and its members would be looking forward to scrutinising the proposals the justice minister intended to bring forward in this area.

"We will be also careful to ensure access to justice is protected whilst value for money is achieved," Mr Givan added.

Also speaking during the debate, the DUP's Jim Wells, who is deputy chairman of the Health Committee, said he wanted money to be found to vaccinate all children against meningitis.

He said that the capital budget allocated for health services "was still under enormous stress".

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, who chairs the OFMDFM Committee, said there was a lack of clarity on the cost of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry including how much money was required to carry it out and how much financial redress would be available to victims.

Enterprise Committee chairman Patsy McGlone of the the SDLP asked the finance minister what provisions would be made in the 2013-14 budget to address chicken litter disposal.

Chris Lyttle of the Alliance Party said it was a helpful debate.

"The debate has given us the opportunity to examine how we use department finances to build a shared future, address inequality and foster sustainable growth across Northern Ireland," he said.

A motion to approve the Executive's final budget plans for 2012-2013 and another to support interim resource funding for the first months of 2013 were passed by the Assembly on cross-community votes.

The first part of the debate can be viewed here.

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