MLAs hear from legal profession on escalating challenges to access justice

The Law Society of Northern Ireland and The Bar of Northern Ireland briefed MLAs on the importance of maintaining access to justice for people across society in the face of public finance challenges and a steady decline in expenditure in publicly funded legal services since justice became a devolved matter in 2010.

Access to justice protects society’s most vulnerable and enables citizens to effectively exercise their rights. Timely access to legal recourse ensures that courts are accessible to all, not just because individual parties in a dispute can afford it or somehow are considered to deserve the benefit, but because court rulings serve the whole of society.

The new Access to Justice All Party Group, chaired by Stewart Dickson MLA, will bring together elected representatives on a cross-party basis to provide an opportunity for the legal professions to engage with and inform MLAs on these issues affecting their constituents.

In a joint statement, Donal Lunny KC representing The Bar of Northern Ireland and Darren Toombs, President of The Law Society of Northern Ireland, said: “The establishment of the All-Party Group on Access to Justice is a positive development and comes at a time when a challenging debate is taking place about how to best enable access to justice across society against a backdrop of systemic underfunding.

“A fair and just society requires equal access to justice. It is about helping people to deal with the challenges of life – employment issues, family breakdown, housing insecurity or dealing with criminal matters. These are life changing events during which people should be treated fairly and have an opportunity for appropriate and timely redress through our courts.

“Yet many people across Northern Ireland struggle to exercise that right. Many issues apparent in the health service have materialised in the justice system – long delays and backlogs, a dedicated but stretched, pressured workforce, historic underinvestment in the system and the need for structural reform.

“This new All-Party Group presents an opportunity to explore these issues in some detail and to provide an interface between our MLAs and all those who have a role to play in problem solving, including third sector organisations. Importantly, the All-Party Group can also foster enhanced political and public understanding of access to justice, empowering people to access their rights.”

The Alliance Party’s Stewart Dickson MLA and Chair of the new Access to Justice All Party Group at Stormont, added: “I’m pleased to see the formation of this group today, the first of its kind at Stormont. Access to justice is an essential right within any democratic society and indeed a fundamental principle of the rule of law. The present issues in our justice system are certainly extensive and cause great concern. So, a group dedicated to exploring access to justice issues is timely, and it will be beneficial for MLAs who are eager to dive deeper and find some solutions to these problems which are impacting people and their outcomes in our constituencies. Access to justice can’t always receive the attention it requires in the Assembly or even the Justice Committee, so I’m glad that we have this additional forum spearheaded by The Law Society and Bar of Northern Ireland to inform MLAs practically about these challenges.

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