Plans to further cut the legal aid bill in Northern Ireland threaten to dissolve the fundamental right of vulnerable people to access justice, a senior barrister has warned.
Chairman of the region's Bar Council Mark Mulholland QC characterised the Department of Justice proposals to reduce the number of advocates involved in certain civil and family disputes as putting a price on everything and a value on nothing.
Solicitors for clients supported by public funds would no longer be automatically entitled to hire counsel to put their case in court if the most radical cost-saving measures are implemented.
It could knock almost £5 million off the £50 million annual legal aid bill for non-criminal cases, with Justice Minister David Ford keen to examine further measures that could bring the savings to £20 million a year.
The moves come after a similar initiative to cut the amount of public money paid to barristers in criminal cases.
Addressing the second annual Bar Council conference at the High Court in Belfast, Mr Mulholland said limiting the options of those supported by legal aid would undermine the justice system.
"If you are in danger of losing your liberty, your children, your right to decide your own future, your livelihood, your home or your reputation - recourse to the law should be open to you," he said.
"It should not be, as it seems to be in these proposals, solely predicated on your ability to afford justice. It should be your right to justice."
Mr Mulholland told conference delegates that he would work with the minister to find an acceptable resolution. He said: "We fully acknowledge the current economic environment in which all public money, which is scarce, has to be allocated. Of that there is absolutely no doubt.
"As a result we have tried to work diligently with the department to find ways to ensure that the public purse is protected but at the same time never losing sight of the fact that appropriate representation should not, cannot and must never be eroded - collaboration not conflict is the way forward for us all - the Bar, the Law Society, the minister and the department."