David Ford surprised by Sir Declan Morgan's comments on budget cuts
Justice Minister David Ford has said he was "a little surprised" by the tone of comments made by the Lord Chief Justice (LCJ) regarding budget cuts.
Sir Declan Morgan said the cuts to the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service would impact on "access to justice".
Mr Ford was briefing the justice committee on his department's budget for 2015-16.
He said the matter would be raised at his next meeting with Sir Declan.
Alban Maginness of the SDLP asked the minister how a justice system could be run with the number of courthouses cut from 22 to 10, "a reduction of 45% since 2013".
Mr Ford said it was not a matter of the number of courthouses but "the capacity of the courthouse" and accessibility.
Courthouses planned for closure
He said the Lord Chief Justice was approaching the matter from his own perspective and that of the judiciary, but Mr Ford had to deal with a very difficult budget settlement.
The minister briefed members on proposed changes to the legal aid budget, which he said was "the key risk to the department living within its budget".
He said legal aid reforms had already reduced costs by £22m.
"The demand for legal aid has consistently exceeded the available budget," Mr Ford said.
He listed some of the areas where he proposed to introduce measures "reducing the scope of legal aid".
Turning to the public service voluntary redundancy scheme, the minister said a total of 195 staff from his department and associated bodies would be required to leave.
He said there were associated dangers if the target for leavers was not achieved.
Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott asked whether any part of the policing budget was ring-fenced.
The minister said the police received "£28.5m specifically from the Treasury for security funding".
Mr Ford and department of justice officials then briefed the committee on proposals to change the arrangements for appointing members to the policing board.
He said the nine independent members of the board were appointed to the board for four years, and this had led to a considerable loss of experience and skills at the end of this period.
The minister was proposing a staggered appointments system, which would make for "a more gradual and phased approach".
Mr Ford said he also believed the rates of remuneration for policing board members were "very significantly in excess of those of any public body across Northern Ireland" and that this was "unsustainable" in the current financial climate.
He proposed that the remuneration for ordinary members be reduced from £19,400 to £12,000 pa.