Advocating for the recognition of justice as a precious public asset

Chief Executive of the Bar of Northern Ireland, David Mulholland writes for agendaNi on the societal and economic benefits being delivered by barristers, as legal experts at the front-line of our justice system.

The Bar of Northern Ireland comprises over 600 self-employed barristers in independent practice. It is a profession which upholds the rule of law and plays an important part in supporting the economic and social wellbeing of the jurisdiction.

Serving the public interest without fear or favour, barristers draw on their expert knowledge of the law, advocacy, and litigation to represent the best interests of clients. As independent experts, our barristers practice across all areas of law in all courts and tribunals in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Great Britain.

Increasingly, barristers are retained to act in cases outside the conventional courtroom setting such as alternative dispute resolution, arbitrations, tribunals, disciplinary hearings, and a broad spectrum of public and private inquiries.

Covid recovery

The strength of the profession has been tested in the face of some adversity over recent years when existing pressures became further heightened as a result of the pandemic.

Waiting lists for court appearances have reached chronic proportions. There is real concern that many across society will experience the reality that justice delayed is justice denied.

Legal professionals have shown enormous adaptability and creativity to keep the system operating to the best of their ability. This has taken its toll on barristers as a committed and dedicated group of professionals, but their commitment to serving their clients and supporting the administration of justice has remained undimmed.

Modernisation and use of technology

Technology has improved the efficient disposal of straightforward matters, and this will help in dealing with the backlog and delivering efficiencies. However, the use of technology in this way must always be measured and appropriate.

The interests of justice and the rights of participants, including their article 6 rights, must be protected. Studies have shown that technology can prove ill-suited to complex cases where sensitive and contested issues are at stake. Indeed, rather than enhancing access to justice, certain changes can introduce impediments to the proper conduct of proceedings.

Justice must be done and be seen to be done. It must not be a distant, compromised or remote experience for those involved in complex cases. Further reforms must be designed in close consultation with legal practitioners, considering the needs of their clients.

Access to justice

Access to justice is a fundamental principle of the rule of law which protects society’s most vulnerable and enables citizens to effectively exercise their rights. Our courts must be accessible to all, not simply because individual parties in a dispute can afford it or are somehow considered to deserve the benefit.

For too long the legal aid conversation in Northern Ireland has focused on cost. This has overlooked the wider societal and economic benefits brought about by appropriate investment in our justice system. While organisations such as the World Bank have evidenced the economic value of legal aid, a narrow focus on cost alone overlooks the human value and dignity of people who require legal aid to help them cope with challenges that they cannot face alone.

“Access to justice is a fundamental principle of the rule of law which protects society’s must vulnerable and enables citizens to exercise their rights.”

There must be a strategic direction and stability in Northern Ireland’s legal aid policy to ensure that it is properly recognised as an indispensable part of our justice system and an integrated part of our social welfare provision.

Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on Poverty in Northern Ireland (2022) shows that, as Northern Ireland entered the pandemic, nearly one-in-five people lived in poverty, including over 100,000 children and 190,000 working age adults.

The cost-of-living crisis looks set to plunge more people into poverty. We must enshrine access to justice during these difficult times.

“Access to justice is a fundamental principle of the rule of law which protects society’s must vulnerable and enables citizens to exercise their rights.”

Policymakers must recognise the value and meaning of justice to our society given the important matters of public interest at stake. Legal aid is a means through which to address deserving and fundamental matters of real human concern that impact across all communities and that have far reaching societal and economic impact if not properly addressed.

Diversity matters

The Bar of Northern Ireland is, thankfully, more diverse that at any point in our history. However, there is more work to be done to ensure that our profession is truly representative of the society that we serve.

The Bar is proactive when it comes to diversity – we have for many years undertaken a range of initiatives aimed at supporting new entrants to the profession.

The Bar of Northern Ireland is a part of the QUB Bright Future Collective, which supports talented young people to study Law at Queen’s through a widening access scheme called the Pathway Opportunity Programme.

The Bar Council is also proud to support the Lord Kerr Scholarship, providing financial assistance to law students from underrepresented backgrounds.

Our focus does not simply rest with those entering the profession. The Bar of Northern Ireland has received a bronze award from Diversity Mark NI and is giving increasing priority to the need to improve retention and advancement of female barristers. To that end, we have introduced various policies and practical measures to effect some positive change including a new Legal Diversity initiative with support from the Lady Chief Justice.

We are committed to promoting a truly representative Bar and working with policy and decision makers to ensure a sustainable system as we enter a new century of law in our jurisdiction.

T: +44(0) 28 9024 1523
E: contact@barlibrary.com
W: www.barofni.com
Twitter: @TheBarofNI
Linkedin: The Bar of Northern Ireland

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