Page last updated at 16:26 GMT, Thursday, 21 June 2012 17:26 UK

Justice Committee

Measures to encourage earlier guilty pleas in criminal cases were under consideration, the justice minister told MLAs, on 21 June 2012.

David Ford told justice committee members that similar measures in Scotland had resulted in considerable savings in legal aid costs.

The minister explained that proposals could include flat fees for defence lawyers and lower sentences for defendants making an early guilty plea.

He was giving a formal response to the Review of Access to Justice recommendations.

Mr Ford assured members that when it came to justice legislation: "No longer will Northern Ireland simply copy and paste what is done in England and Wales."

He outlined some of the 19 project areas in the Access to Justice plan including speeding-up justice, legal needs of children and young people, expert witnesses, family justice and legal aid.

The minister said changes were being made to criminal legal aid with the aim of saving £20m a year.

Further changes were aimed at saving £8m a year from civil legal aid.

The DUP's Jim Wells was critical of the legal aid fees paid to some barristers.

The minister said it should be understood that not all barristers were on £854,000 a year.

Reductions at the other end of the scale could mean a pay cut from £20,000 to £18,000 a year for junior barristers or assistants, he explained.

Mr Wells asked the minister if he intended make further cuts to legal aid.

"I am certainly not saying that is the end of the road," Mr Ford replied.

The committee heard a briefing from the department of justice, the public prosecution service (PPS) and the police on "progress to reduce avoidable delay in the criminal justice system".

Nick Perry permanent secretary at the Department of Justice said there had been some progress.

Mr Perry said that the previous week a case had gone through the system from the crime being committed to the defendant being sentenced to prison in two days.

He conceded that the status quo was not acceptable, and went on to outline some of the measures being taken to address delays in the system.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Barra McGrory, told members a lot of work had taken place to improve the standard of files sent to the PPS by the police.

He explained that a system of four to five "gatekeepers" had been set up to advise police officers on what was required by the PPS.

Justice committee membership

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