Northern Ireland legal aid payments slowing down due to insufficient funding
Improvements in the processing of criminal legal aid payments in Northern Ireland have been hampered by the availability of legal aid funding, a watchdog has warned.
An inspection report from Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI) has found that the new Legal Aid Management System (LAMS), introduced at a cost of £9.7 million, has improved how payments are made and reduced running costs.
In the first nine months since the LAMS was implemented, the average time to process payments had improved. However, processing times slipped in 2020/21 and the first six months of 2021/22, in part due to the impact of insufficient legal aid funding.
As a result of the funding gap, the Legal Services Agency Northern Ireland (LSANI) increased its target of making 95 per cent of criminal legal aid payments within eight weeks to making 95 per cent of payments within 12 weeks.
Chief inspector Jacqui Durkin said: “Inspectors found that since the LAMS IT system was implemented, LSANI staffing levels and annual operating costs had reduced.
“The LSANI had reduced its payment error rates and its counter fraud unit had been working hard on the reporting, investigating and identifying potential areas of fraud.
“We also found the efficiency and effectiveness of the LAMS and the LSANI staff who operated it were impacted by the availability of legal aid funding, with targets and processing times being extended to match the available funding.”
The report makes three strategic and three operational recommendations to further improve the legal aid system, including a review of cases involving unusual or novel points of law or factual issues, known as exceptional preparation.
It also recommends that the LSANI should update its LAMS guidance and develop a training strategy and an action plan for staff and implement a job description for the LAMS support manager role.
The CJI has urged the Public Prosecution Service and the Department of Justice to provide the LSANI with a list categorising the different types of criminal offences where Legal Aid can be paid that can be updated as new offences are introduced.
Inspectors also recommended the LSANI should develop a strategy to prevent, detect and respond to fraud and an operational plan for its delivery.
All of the recommendations have been accepted by the Department of Justice.
A spokesperson for the Department said: “The Department welcomes the report’s recognition of the improvements delivered by the Legal Services Agency in processing criminal legal aid payments and the contribution which the Legal Aid Management System has made to these improvements.
“We also welcome recognition of the progress made in significantly reducing errors in the level of payments and improvements made to estimate the level of future expenditure.
“We recognise the importance of appropriate levels of funding to enable the Legal Services Agency to deliver prompt and predictable levels of payment for work undertaken.
“The Department has been liaising closely with the Law Society and Bar Council on the level of payments which the Agency can make, and has recently confirmed that it will make payments on the basis of an additional £5.3m and is working to further improve the level of funding available.
“The report’s recommendations have all been accepted and are being implemented as part of an agreed action plan.”