The sums paid out in legal aid to some Northern Irish lawyers have been described as “staggering”.
New figures show that a single barrister was paid a gross sum of roughly £2.7m over two years combined.
The top ten barristers together earned £5,953,805 in 2013/14, an average of more than £500,000 each (although the figure was distorted upwards by the top two earners).
Total payments to barristers in 2013/14 were the highest for at least six years.
Justice Minister David Ford said that the numbers were an illustration of the need to cut down on legal aid expenditure.
The figures are gross, before VAT and expenses are deducted.
These are staggering figures and demonstrate that there was a clear need to look at how much taxpayers’ money is spent on legal aidJonathan Isaby, chief executive The TaxPayers’ Alliance
Meanwhile, bodies representing both solicitors and barristers stressed the importance of legal aid, and said the figures do not reveal the complexity of the work involved or the number of clients helped.
The TaxPayers’ Alliance said they “were staggering figures”.
The figures published yesterday cover the financial year from 2013 to 2014, and are the most recent available.
They are split into payments to barristers and payments to solicitors, and cover criminal cases and civil cases.
The News Letter has looked back through the last several years of figures, with the oldest readily available set dating back to 2008/09.
The top-earning barrister for 2013/14 was Patrick Lyttle, with gross payments totalling more than £1.7m. It is the second year he has been top of the list, having earned over £1m the year before. On both occasions payments to him soared far beyond those of his nearest rivals, who had been paid £705,152 in 2013/14, and £541,353 in 2012/13.
The figures relate to the amount paid each year to firms and barristers, but it could be in return for work which spanned many years.
When it comes to total legal aid spending, the figure fluctuates by several million pounds per year.
Legal aid payments to all solicitors in 2008/09 amounted to £58m.
This had grown to £62m in 2009/10, and then to £69.5m in 2010/2011.
In 2011/12 it was £68.4m, and in 2012/13 it was just under £61.8m.
The latest figures – for 2013/14 – show that spending had climbed back up to £68.9m.
Meanwhile, the fees to barristers have also varied from year to year.
Looking back over six years, payments to all barristers in 2008/09 stood at £25.5m, rising to £35m in 2009/10. In 2010/11 it was just over £23.7m, then in 2011/12 it was £33.3m, and in 2012/13 it stood at £32.3m.
The latest figures – for 2013/14 – reveal that the figure was £35.3m for that year.
Combining both the payments to barristers and solicitors, the most recent total was roughly 10 per cent higher than the previous 12 months, standing at £104.2m compared with £94.1m.
The legal aid spending is highly-concentrated too, with top groups of 100 barristers and 100 firms picking up by far the lion’s share of the money.
The TaxPayers’ Alliance, a pressure group which campaigns for lower taxes, issued a statement from its chief executive Jonathan Isaby, which read: “These are staggering figures and demonstrate that there was a clear need to look at how much taxpayers’ money is spent on legal aid.
“It is of course right that those who cannot afford proper defence get it, and that nobody is denied access to justice because of their financial situation.
“Placing a cap makes a certain degree of sense but it’s crucial that the reforms are monitored very carefully indeed, as poorly designed reforms could leave taxpayers with a bigger bill to pick up if people are forced to represent themselves.”
A statement from Gerry McAlinden, chairman of barristers’ body The Bar Council for Northern Ireland, said that publishing a list of payments “without a clear explanation of the age, volume and complexity of cases involved is of limited value, and disguises the stark reality that families in Northern Ireland will suffer from ongoing cuts to the legal aid system”.
The statement added that the efforts by the Department of Justice to cut down on legal aid spending “will remove the right to free legal representation to vulnerable women, children, families and communities without the kind of informed consultation that would expose the damage that is being done to human rights and access to justice”.
The Law Society, representing solicitors in the Province, said the figures did not offer an insight into “the volume of legal aid work which took place over 2013 – 2014 and the total number of people who were assisted”. It added that the “value of legal aid cannot be determined simply in monetary terms”.
TOP PAYMENTS TO BARRISTERS
The 20 barristers with the highest gross payments in 2013/14:
1: Patrick Lyttle: £1,729,254
2: Sean Devine: £705,152
3: Margaret Walsh: £532,065
4: Siobhan Keegan: £513,405
5: DP Fee: £506,225
6: Brian Fee: £463,421
7: Mary Higgins: £452,067
8: Noelle McGrenera: £389,425
9: Mr WG Berry: £337,692
10: Odhran Stockman: £325,099
11: EM McDermott: £295,316
12: G Duffy: £293,500
13: Richard McConkey: £288,587
14: BG McCartney: £285,658
15: Laura McMahon: £280,867
16: C MacCreaner: £278,090
17: JE Grant: £274,998
18: Ian B Turkington: £268,314
19: Michael O’Higgins: £256,796
20: Luke F Curran: £253,679
Justice minister: cost still at very high level
TOP PAYMENTS TO LAW FIRMS
Below are the total 2013/14 figures paid to legal firms:
1: Kevin Winters & KRW Law Advocates Ltd: £2,810,499
2: Madden and Finucane 11: £1,664,828
3: McConnell, Kelly & Co: £1,555,219
4: Donnelly & Wall: £1,348,729
5: Trevor Smyth & Co: £1,272,750
6: McKenny, Sweeney McKeown Solicitors: £1,162,249
7: Quigley, Grant & Kyle Solicitors: £1,147,703
8: GR Ingram & Co: £1,096,610
9: Joe Mulholland & Co Solicitors: £994,484
10: McCann & McCann: £969,110
JUSTICE MINISTER: COST STILL AT VERY HIGH LEVEL
Earlier this year, Justice Minister David Ford unveiled plans to introduce a kind of levy of 15 per cent on legal aid bills.
This not only applies to future earnings, but would also entail clawing back 15 per cent from cases which may already have taken place, but for which lawyers have yet to be paid.
This reform is not yet in effect. However, the justice minister said various other measures have been underway for years to help curb legal aid spending – without which the 2013/14 figures would have been higher still.
“The reform programme has been going for about three years. So [these figures] are reflecting the first phase of that, but still shows the very high level,” he said.
Ultimately the figures emphasise the importance of continuing reform, Mr Ford said. He said that predicted expenditure is still set to top £100m this year, and that the department’s legal aid budget falls far short of that.
The changes he wants to see include tightening eligibility for certain family-related legal battles, adding: “I don’t think the court system can fund a debate about whether access [to a child] is at three o’clock or four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon.”