Naomi Long acknowledges perception of legal aid as 'wealthy people making money'
NAOMI Long has said there is a challenge in presenting legal aid as part of the welfare system as opposed to the common perception of "wealthy people making money".
The justice minister said she doesn't believe the bleak scenario presented by the legal profession is "quite as stark as has been painted" but conceded that the impact of budget cuts "would definitely result in closure of a significant number of firms".
In an interview with Irish Legal News, Mrs Long responded to claims by the Law Society and the Bar Council that cuts in her department's spending increased the likelihood of “legal aid deserts” in towns across the north.
The Alliance leader previously warned that a proposed 2 per cent reduction in Department of Justice spending, as set out in Stormont's three-year draft budget, would impact on the entire criminal justice system, including policing.
Representatives of the legal profession have warned that the cuts, which aim to see funds diverted to health, will "undermine access to justice".
“The current draft budget, as it has been left, was really inadequate, not just in terms of legal aid but right across the justice sector,” Mrs Long said.
“While I understand that we are all trying to make ends meet in a difficult financial settlement, there is a certain level of funding that is required for justice to be able to meet its statutory functions. The amount that was set aside in the budget for justice was not sufficient to do that.”
Mrs Long said her department had undertaken its own analysis of the budget's implications "in terms of how many towns and so on would be affected".
"I don't think the picture is quite as stark as has been painted in terms of access, but it would definitely result in closure of a significant number of firms," she said.
"In many rural communities, the relationships between solicitors' firms and their clients can go back generations, so it's not simply that you just go to a different solicitor – often families have worked with a particular solicitors' firm for many, many years and have strong ties. The loss of that business to the town or the village would be a significant blow to the community."
The minister argued that one way to build support for legal aid would be by presenting it differently.
“There is a tendency for people to focus on the practices and the barristers who benefit from legal aid, and see this essentially as wealthy people making money out of the system,” she said.
"People lose sight of the fact that those actually in receipt of legal aid are the clients. Without that legal aid, these are individuals who would not be able to access the justice system because they can't afford it. For me, the legal aid system is part and parcel of our welfare system."
Mrs Long said she was keen to avoid "a situation where we're in conflict" with the legal profession.
“The last time we had strike action here, we ended up in a situation where we had a backlog of about three months of work, which took over two years to clear,” she said.
"Given that we're already trying to clear the backlogs from Covid, any kind of industrial action at this point in time could have *catastrophic effects on that recovery."