Northern Ireland Assembly
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Reform Exorbitant Criminal Legal Aid System Says Committee
Spending on criminal legal aid has spiralled out of control over the last ten years with no comparable increase in the number of cases dealt with. That’s the stark message from the Northern Ireland Assembly Public Accounts Committee which recently published its report entitled Managing Criminal Legal Aid.
The Committee is calling on the Justice Department to bring about meaningful and swift action to bring costs under control and to restore public confidence in the system.
Speaking at the launch of the report, the Committee Chairperson Paul Maskey MLA said: “Access to justice is paramount in a fair society, but it must be at a reasonable cost. Criminal legal aid has cost the taxpayer £400 million over the past ten years and the legal profession has taken advantage of loopholes in the system. That culture is beginning to change, but the system must be overhauled and made less complex.
“No one has emerged with credit from this review. The Department of Justice is ultimately responsible for the flawed design of the system; Court Service introduced a series of defective payment schemes; the Commission has not managed the system well; and much needed reforms are seven years behind schedule. All this has been hugely costly to the public purse.”
The Committee also found that the financial and management systems operating in the Commission were poor, with the Commission overspending its budget every year and requiring almost £150 million in extra funding. Other Committee concerns included the additional £10.5 million paid to lawyers who appealed their fees for Crown Court cases and the almost £23 million spent on complex cases, known as Very High Cost Cases, which never actually went to trial or lasted more than 25 days in court.
Chairperson Paul Maskey concluded by saying: “It is difficult to see how the current arrangements enable the Legal Services Commission to deliver value for money, and it is only with a locally accountable Minister that these issues are finally being dealt with.
“At the same time, my Committee is not convinced by Department of Justice assurances that planned changes will make a difference in the near future. Consequently, our message is that significant improvements must be made to the current arrangements for the delivery of criminal legal aid, and tangible cost savings must be achieved without delay.”
Notes to Editors:
The Committee took evidence from witnesses from the Department of Justice; the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service on the development of policy; and the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission on the management of criminal legal aid.
The Report also notes that there are 300 Very High Cost Cases with an estimated value of £22 million are still to be processed under old remuneration schemes. The Committee recommends that these cases are subject to much stricter scrutiny than in the past.
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