The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has agreed
to the following Report:
LEGAL AID IN NORTHERN IRELAND
1. Concerns have been expressed from time to time
about aspects of the operation of legal aid in Northern Ireland.
For example, the Comptroller and Auditor General qualified his
opinion on the Legal Aid Fund (Northern Ireland) accounts for
both 1996-97 and 1997- 98 because of the number of ineligible
claimants who were awarded legal aid.
Following other concerns expressed to us, we decided, in February
2000, to conduct an inquiry into certain aspects of criminal legal
aid, and sought written evidence from the Northern Ireland Court
Service and the Lord Chancellor's Legal Aid Advisory Committee
for Northern Ireland.
2. In February 1998, the Government had announced
a review of the provision and administration of legal aid in Northern
Ireland. Following this review, a consultation document on legal
aid reform in Northern Ireland, entitled "Public Benefit
and the Public Purse", was published in June 1999. The Government
subsequently announced its decisions in "The Way Ahead",
a White Paper on legal aid reform in Northern Ireland, which was
published in September 2000.
3. In the light of the publication of the White Paper,
we decided to broaden the scope of our inquiry and adopted the
following terms of reference:
To examine the Government's
proposals for the future of legal aid in Northern Ireland, as
set out in Cm. 4849.
We also invited all those who had commented to the
Government on the consultation document to submit written evidence,
and a number have done so.
We also received, from the authors, copies of a number of papers
originally submitted to the Government as part of its consultation
process. We have arranged for these to be publicly available.
We are most grateful to all who have contributed written material.
4. We have taken oral evidence on only one occasion
and the witnesses were Lord Bach, Parliamentary Secretary, Lord
Chancellor's Department, Mr Glenn Thompson, Director General,
and Mr Alan Hunter, Director of Legal Aid, Northern Ireland Court
This provided valuable elucidation both of the background to the
reform proposals and of progress to date. We would like to thank
the witnesses for their contribution to the inquiry.
5. We would normally not have reported until we had
taken a wider range of oral evidence from amongst those who had
made written submissions. However, in the present circumstances,
and given that the Government hope that there will be draft legislation
by autumn 2001,
we considered that publication now of what must, by its very nature,
be an interim report, would be a useful contribution to the continuing
debate which the Government wishes to encourage as it seeks to
implement its proposals. We have, of course, taken full account
of the written submissions we received. In view of the very limited
scope for us to take oral evidence, these assumed a particular
importance in the context of this inquiry.
2 Appendix 16, p. 65. Back
to hereafter as "The Legal Aid Advisory Committee". Back
list of submissions to the Committee published as Appendices to
the Minutes of Evidence may be found at p. xv. Back
p. xvi. Back
Northern Ireland Court Service is a Department of the Lord Chancellor,
established under the Judicature (Northern Ireland) Act 1978. Back