Northern Ireland publicly funded legal aid bill climbs to £102 million a year

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Serious concern has been raised over Northern Ireland’s publicly funded legal aid bill which has climbed to £102 million a year - despite pledges to cut the cost.

A damning report by Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has found continued failures by the Department of Justice and the Legal Aid Agency “to deliver an economic, efficient and effective” system.

Legal aid is the system where the government pays for lawyers for those who cannot afford legal representation.

It has long been a source of controversy, with the region having one of the highest bills in the world proportionate to the population.

Attempts to reduce expenditure in recent years led to two unofficial strikes by members of the legal profession who refused to take on new cases under revised pay rates.

In 2011, the PAC made recommendations to introduce significant reform of the legal aid system.

However, the committee’s most recent report found that “reforms have not been implemented effectively and at an average annual cost of £102 million since 2011, the costs of legal aid remain unacceptably high”.

The committee considers that the lack of progress in implementing many of the recommendations contained in its 2011 report “clearly demonstrates the Department and the Agency’s continued failure to deliver an economic, efficient and effective legal aid system in Northern Ireland”.

The report adds that the “current system lacks a basic mechanism to ensure quality of service and to deliver accountability and transparency in the use of public money”.

It also found that non-criminal legal aid has not been reformed to date “resulting in excessive costs being incurred year after year” and civil legal aid cases heard in the High Court lack transparency with no line of accountability.

PAC chairman Robin Swann said the situation was “simply unacceptable”.

He added: “One of the most frustrating part of this inquiry process is the committee finding that assurances given in 2011 have not yet been met.

“Throughout this inquiry and report we have found that the long-standing issues stem from a failure to drive forward much-needed reform.

“We believe that there is a clear need for the accounting officer to instigate a capability review of the agency’s leadership team, including the department’s sponsorship arrangements, to ensure that it is adequately resourced and has the necessary skills, experience and culture to deliver a major change programme.”