Page last updated at 06:26 GMT, Wednesday, 12 May 2010 07:26 UK

NI justice minister reveals priorities

David Ford is the first NI justice minister in almost 40 years. In his first major interview, a month after his appointment, the minister tells BBC NI Home Affairs correspondent Vincent Kearney about his priorities.

David Ford
David Ford was appointed NI justice minister last month

David Ford's arrival demonstrated the dramatic change in his circumstances.

In the past, the Alliance leader usually arrived alone for interviews.

But when we met in his office this week, he was surrounded by an entourage of advisors and press officers who had briefed him on the many different strands of the department he now heads.

Dealing with the dissident republican threat, the reform of the prison service, legal aid fees and sentencing policy were on the agenda, as the assembled chorus watched, anxious that their man would not drop a clanger.

He didn't. Appointed Minister for Justice exactly a month ago, David Ford has clearly spent many long hours studying his brief.

Asked to list his priorities, he immediately identified the growing threat from dissident republicans as the issue of greatest concern.

The minister cannot directly influence the response to that threat as MI5 is responsible for gathering intelligence on dissidents and the chief constable is operationally independent.

What he can do is lend his support to calls for greater funding and resources. Gordon Brown promised access to special funding from the national reserve as part of the deal on devolution of policing and justice powers, and it seems certain that Matt Baggott will soon test the strength of that promise with new Prime Minister David Cameron.

Mr Ford has pledged that he will back any well-argued case for further resources.

Legal aid fees

It is a different story when it comes to legal aid fees in Northern Ireland.

The minister can have a direct impact. He has made it clear that funding needs to be reduced.

According to the Court Service, which foots the bill, the cost of legal aid in NI has more than doubled during the past decade and the bill this year is expected to be around £94m.

The cost works out at about 20% more expensive per head of population in Northern Ireland than in England and Wales.

The court service is introducing a range of measures to cut the bill. It includes a reduction in fees for what are termed Very High Cost Cases - the most serious and complex criminal trials which are expected to last for 25 days or more.

Some of the barristers involved in these cases earn vast sums of money - the most recent figures available show that in 2008, 25 barristers earned £250,000 or more.

The maximum hourly fee for preparation work in these cases has now been cut from £180 to £152.50 per hour, which is the same as the rate currently paid in England and Wales.

The ruling body for barristers, the Bar Council, opposes the reduction and argues that cutting fees will damage the criminal justice system because the best barristers won't be available at those rates.

In line with that policy, during the past week barristers have withdrawn their services in three trials.

Mr Ford is the first NI justice minister for almost 40 years

David Ford has little sympathy, and knows that the public will share his view.

"We have to recognise that all the costs of the justice system, including legal aid, are now being weighed as part of the Northern Ireland budget," he said.

"They are being balanced against the costs of hospitals and schools and everything else that we deal with, so we have to be realistic."

When asked for his response to the Bar Council's position that £152.50 per hour isn't enough, he said: "It is now up to people to realise the reality of the financial circumstances we are in because I believe most people would regard that as a reasonably generous rate of pay compared to the rate of pay which other people paid from the public purse are currently receiving.

"We need to have a real reality check as to what is and what isn't possible."

Protesting barristers may not be the only rebellion he has to quell.

Reform of the Prison Service is another priority policy area and one that could prove much more contentious.

The minister has already initiated a review and is reluctant to pre-judge the outcome, but it is likely that there will be changes to the management structures within the Prison Service.

That will be the easy part. Any move to challenge the Prison Officers' Association would be another matter entirely.

A recent report described the union as an obstacle to change and well-placed sources say the minister expects to meet strong resistance if reforms involve changes to the terms and conditions of prison officers and the authority that the union wields.

On the issue of sentencing policy, the minister proved non-committal when it came to specifics, but said the issue would be under consideration during the coming months.

Justice bill

In terms of the desired outcome, he said: "Certainly we do need to ensure that we get effective sentencing and most of all we need to ensure that we get consistent sentencing so that victims and victims' families feel that they are getting fair treatment and equal treatment compared to others."

The minister hopes to bring his first justice bill before the Assembly in September, with the expectation that it will become law before the Assembly elections next May.

It will be the first justice bill introduced by a local minister in almost 40 years, and David Ford is well aware that it will be closely scrutinised for evidence that having a local politician at the helm really does make a difference.

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