Of the many financial excesses in Northern Ireland in recent years, the Province’s legal aid bill has been one of the most persistent.
Overall costs are said to be among the highest in the world per capita.
The former Justice Minister David Ford tried to bring down the bill, with some success. It is only fair to note that the Alliance MLA faced resistance within the legal profession.
Now the overall bill has risen to £102 million a year again.
A wide range of legal principles and services and traditions are, from time to time, described as a “cornerstone of British justice”. There is no doubt that legal aid is one of those cornerstones by ensuring that disadvantaged people have representation in the courts.
But the problems relating to legal aid in Northern Ireland have been deep-seated and multi-faceted: for example, a small number of barristers have in the past made gross amounts of money out of legal aid, averaging high hundreds of thousands of pounds a year for periods of time.
Contrast that with what the state pays an Appeal Court judge (£204,000) or a doctor with a top merit award (£178,000). Those latter two categories of professional are not merely highly trained but they are a tiny number of people at the pinnacle of two of the most elite professions.
Legal aid should not be enriching individual lawyers far beyond those sums. This is more easily said than done – barristers are self employed and the best of them are expensive, and the state and the public needs to have access to the best.
There is now a particular problem with civil legal aid costs. It is alarming to hear the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) talk about the lack of transparency and accountability of legal aid. Within civil legal aid, judicial review is still expensive.
This is another urgent but complex issue in which Claire Sugden’s capabilities as justice minister face a stringent test in coming months. But she must drive further reform.