Solicitor’s concern over legal funding

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A Ballymena solicitor has called on Justice Minister David Ford to protect funding surrounding family law and Children Order law by ensuring adequate funding is in place.

Donna Thompson, of James J Macaulay Solicitors in Carrickfergus, a solicitor specialising in family and children’s law, said the Minister’s proposals outlined to the Justice Committee in March to remove Legal Aid provision from various civil matters, will result in homelessness for impoverished spouses and partners and their children

“Furthermore, the Minister’s proposals to limit the number of occasions that parties can avail of Legal Aid in order to resolve children’s living arrangements will result in people having to negotiate these issues at court level, alone and without legal representation, resulting in injustice, pressure on the courts ,as cases in which parties are unrepresented take longer to resolve and inevitable increase in violence within the environs of the court,” Donna added.

She also contends that provision of legal services to the most vulnerable in our society to include children involved in Care Order Proceedings is a critical and vital front line service.

“This situation is already taking place in England and Wales as a result of Legal Aid Reforms imposed in 2013, and I would exhort the Justice Minister to learn the lessons of that exercise as so powerfully demonstrated in the recent BBC 1 Panorama programme ‘DIY Justice’,” Donna said.

She added: “The Minister furthermore outlined plans to cut the fees available in family law and Children Order proceedings despite fees not having been increased since 1996.

“On the basis of the current fee proposals funding will be so impoverished that it shall not be adequate to fairly and justly resolve critically important cases to include domestic violence cases and applications in relation to children being placed in care with the result that justice will not be served.

“The proposals further place Northern Ireland at the same risk of the English and Welsh experience where solicitors simply cannot afford to take on cases funded by Legal Aid.

“England and Wales are currently experiencing extensive ‘advice deserts’ where people in critical need of legal advice involving Family and Children are unable to find a solicitor to represent them.”

Donna made reference to comments made by Mr Ford during the course of an election debate hosted by Evan Davis on BBC 2’s Newsnight programme last week.

In the programme, Mr Ford, as leader of the Alliance Party and the current Justice Minister, commented on the deficit reduction indicating that it was important to try to reduce the deficit but that it should not be done by continually cutting services.

Donna added: “I am mindful of the motto of the Department of Justice - ‘Building a fair, just and safer community’.

“This entails ensuring that our system of justice is adequately resourced in order that justice may be obtained for the most vulnerable in our society.

“I would therefore call upon David Ford to honour his party’s election promises within Northern Ireland, and to protect funding surrounding family law and Children Order law by ensuring adequate funding is in place, and further in order to honour the motto of the Department of Justice namely truly ‘Building a fair, just and safer community’.

“The Minister cannot be “penny wise but pound foolish” in his role as Justice Minister, whilst at the same time promising the electorate as leader of the Alliance Party, that changes should not be made by cuts in services.”