Lawyers have hit back at the head of Northern Ireland's prosecution service in a dispute over the legal aid bill.
Northern Ireland's Director of Public Prosecutions has called for a root-and-branch review of how the government money for legal work such as court appearances is paid to defence lawyers, claiming they have access to an apparent "bottomless pit" of public funds.
Barra McGrory QC said it was not right that the proportion of money distributed to defence solicitors and barristers representing clients supported by the state was around double that of the Public Prosecution Service's (PPS) £35 million annual budget.
Mr McGrory said the establishment of a public defenders office was one possible way to bring spending on both sides into line while also introducing a needed measure of regulation over defence advocates, whom he claimed were operating "a free market on the public purse".
But the president of the Law Society which represents lawyers, Michael Robinson, said: "He is not comparing like with like. He fails to acknowledge the significant costs incurred by government agencies which support and underpin his department such as the PSNI and Forensic Science.
"These significant prosecution costs are missing from his stated annual departmental costs of £35 million.
"We look forward to meeting with the director to highlight these omissions."
The head of the PPS acknowledged recent measures introduced by Stormont Justice Minister David Ford to reduce the fees paid to defence teams in criminal cases but said more substantive reform was needed.
"I think there needs to be a root-and-branch examination of the criminal justice system to have a look at just why the defence costs appear to be a bottomless pit," he said.
Mr McGrory was a prominent defence lawyer himself before joining the prosecution service.