Auditor criticises delays to legal aid reforms
The Auditor General has warned that delays in implementing recommendations by the Public Accounts Committee are 'undermining the credibility of the legal aid system' in Northern Ireland.
Kieran Donnelly presented the results of his audit of last year’s accounts of the Legal Services Agency on Thursday.
The accounts record the annual expenditure of the agency on legal aid and the outstanding liabilities for ongoing legal cases.
The report found that a number of issues “remain unresolved” including the lack of effective counter fraud arrangements.
The Public Accounts Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly published two reports on legal aid in 2011 and another in January 2017. The reports were critical of how the agency had managed the legal aid budget over a number of years.
It also expressed concerns with the delays to reforming the governance of the legal aid system and that previous assurances to improve the management of the legal aid system following its report in 2011 had not been kept.
The report contained five recommendations for improvement.
Mr Donnelly said: “The delays in implementing the recommendations of the committee’s report undermine the credibility of the legal aid system.
“Nearly 18 months later the Department and the Agency have not taken action on all of the recommendations.
“I accept that there are significant constraints on the delivery of the recommendations in some areas without a minister and a legislative Assembly.
“Nevertheless, I am disappointed by the slow progress being made. I will continue to monitor this and expect to see a substantial improvement in the pace and delivery of the legal aid reform.”
Mr Donnelly added that the agency and the Department of Justice have taken steps to address some of the recommendations in the committee’s report.
Draft legislation has been prepared for the implementation of a registration scheme for legal aid providers while new IT has also been developed to support the scheme.
“However, the legislation cannot be progressed further in the absence of an Assembly,” he added.