NI: Legal aid reforms have not reduced cost, report finds
Legal aid spending in Northern Ireland has not been successfully reduced by unpopular reforms aimed specifically at cutting spending.
A new report by the Northern Ireland Audit Office states that rules introduced in 2011 to reduce Crown Court expenditure to £17 million by 2013-14 have failed and Crown Court expenditure actually increased from £26 million in 2011-12 to £30 million in 2014-15.
The report says the 2011 rules “have been successful in driving down the average cost of cases in the Crown Court but they did not go far enough to achieve the savings intended”.
It also said the legal aid budget “has consistently been inadequate to meet expenditure”.
Between 2011-15, a total of £317 million was allocated to fund legal aid to claimants and the associated administration costs of the Legal Services Agency, but total costs over the same period were £432 million - representing a £115 million shortfall.
Kieran Donnelly, comptroller and auditor general, said: “Reforms to improve the governance of the legal aid system have not been implemented within a reasonable timeframe and have not reduced the high costs of legal aid in Northern Ireland”.
A spokesperson for the Law Society of Northern Ireland told Irish Legal News: “The National Audit Office report highlights that legal aid provision in Northern Ireland continues to be demand led. That demand and eligibility for legal aid has increased because of higher levels of social and economic deprivation.
“Solicitors throughout Northern Ireland have shown great commitment to providing legal aid services to the community despite significant cuts to their fees and a legal aid budget which has consistently been inaccurately forecast resulting in the need for Department of Justice to top up a budget which has been inadequate since devolution.
“A strong legal aid system is a central pillar of a stable and cohesive society and the Society welcomes Minister Sugden’s commitment to prioritising access to justice.”
The Bar of Northern Ireland declined to make a comment.