NI: MLAs hit out at Northern Ireland’s legal aid spend

NI: MLAs hit out at Northern Ireland's legal aid spend

Northern Ireland’s legal aid spend has come under criticism from MLAs, who say little progress has been made in reducing costs.

The Northern Ireland Assembly’s public accounts committee (PAC) has published a new report into Managing Legal Aid, following up on a 2011 report.

Committee chairperson Robin Swann said: “The last time the PAC looked into the issue of legal aid payments we strongly recommended that the Department of Justice and Legal Services Agency urgently implement reforms to the legal aid system and to establish effective financial controls over its cost.

“What we have found in this inquiry is that these reforms have not been implemented effectively and the costs of legal aid have continued to climb. We are seeing average annual costs of £102 million per year since 2011—this is simply unacceptable.

“We are also concerned that the Department has failed to implement a statutory registration scheme for legal services providers, the absence of which means that the legal aid system lacks a basic mechanism to ensure quality of service and to deliver accountability and transparency in the use of public money.”

The committee voiced concern over a failure to reform non-criminal legal aid, leading to “excessive costs” due to a complex mix of statutory and non-statutory fees with few paid at a standard rate.

Mr Swann said the Department had not conducted a “serious examination of the potential benefits that could be derived from contracting with providers for publicly funded legal aid”.

He added: “The Department needs to seriously examine whether contracting these services would both save money while maintaining the rights of those accessing the justice system.”

The committee said commitments made in 2011 to update the Legal Services Agency’s information systems had not been met.

It said this, and an under-resourced fraud unit, leaves the Agency and the Department with no means to ensure money is spent appropriately.

Share icon
Share this article: