A workable alternative for funding money damages claims must be in place before legal aid is scrapped, lawyers have warned.
The UK-wide Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) has responded to proposals from the Department of Justice (DoJ) to abolish legal aid as a method of funding legal cases for money damages in Northern Ireland.
The DoJ is considering whether to replace legal aid with a “no-win no-fee” system similar to that in England and Wales.
“It’s dangerous for the justice department not to have an alternative ready when legal aid is abolished,” said APIL’s executive committee representative for Northern Ireland, Martin Hanna. “It is planning instead to remove legal aid and work it out later”.
“A workable system must, at the very least, be established in tandem with removal of legal aid. Injured people can’t be left waiting with uncertainty about when they can seek the redress they need, or how they can fund their cases.
“For people to no longer be able to turn to the legal aid fund when they need help is very unwelcome, but the Department of Justice has been clear that the move to abolish it is inevitable,” he said.
APIL insists that any alternative method of funding legal cases must be suitable for Northern Ireland.
“It’s not right to simply copy England and Wales. Northern Ireland has a different set of circumstances and legal system. Any replacement for legal aid must work for the people of Northern Ireland, no-one else,” said Mr Hanna.
“The system in England and Wales was reformed in 2012 because of alleged spiralling legal costs, but they are not an issue here in Northern Ireland,” said Mr Hanna. “We could, however, accept a no-win no-fee system as long as it is suitable for Northern Ireland and enables anyone to fund a legal case if they need to,regardless of means.“The beauty of legal aid is that is it available to all, and because 85 to 95 per cent of money damages cases are successful it costs the public purse very little,” he added. “We’re fighting for the next best thing. Whatever happens next, access to justice for all must remain in the bedrock of Northern Ireland’s justice system.”
The DoJ consultation closes on 19 February.