The Legal Services Agency (LSA) has taken well over a decade just to “get into first gear” when it comes to working out how much of its money is being mis-spent, according to a lawyer-turned-MLA.
The body is currently working on a system to figure out the level of legal aid being claimed incorrectly or fraudulently, and plans to publish its first report next year.
But this will be about a decade-and-a-half after auditors raised concerns about ineffective fraud controls, and at least 10 years after estimates were first published for its sister body in England and Wales.
Given that the legal aid budget annually tops £100m in Northern Ireland, if even a small proportion of it is being misclaimed the figure would be substantial.
The news comes after a string of revelations in the RHI Inquiry about public sector incompetence and profligacy.
Both Jim Allister (TUV leader and qualified barrister) and Claire Sugden (independent unionist and erstwhile justice minister) have voiced concern.
Mr Allister said: “The public will doubtless question why it has taken so long to get into first gear on this issue.
“Why will the assessment only be reported on for the financial year 2019/20?
“It is disappointing that action is not being taken more quickly to address the issue.”
Ms Sugden said there is “a serious question as to why the agency has only now managed to get a grip on this issue 15 years after it was first raised by the NI Audit Office”.
“How much public money has been lost through fraudulent claims and error of legal aid since 2003?” she said.
The issue first came to light thanks to a report from Northern Ireland’s auditor general, Kieran Donnelly, published on March 13.
It said the LSA’s accounts (and those of its predecessor body) “have been qualified since 2003 due to the lack of effective counter fraud arrangements” and other weaknesses.
Whilst “significant resources” had been put towards creating “a robust strategy to counter fraud and error”, the auditors said they yet again had to qualify the 2016/17 accounts. They could not satisfy themselves that “a material amount of legal aid expenditure has not been claimed fraudulently or in error”.
The Department for Justice, responsible for the LSA, said the LSA “examines all applications for legal aid and all bills submitted for work done on a case by case basis”, correcting mistakes and reporting suspected fraud as and when it is found.
However, it confirmed it cannot provide any estimates of how much mis-spending there is.
It said for “a number of years” it has been working “to establish a methodology” to do so. It said “significant progress” has been made, and that the “first formal assessment will be reported on for the financial year 2019/20”.