Pressure was mounting last night on Northern Ireland’s richest lawyers to disclose their earnings from the public purse amid concern that a Freedom of Information request for the data has remained unanswered for more than two years.
Under a Freedom of Information request by the Belfast Telegraph and another media outlet in 2006, the Legal Services Commission was asked to release details of those lawyers and legal firms in receipt of the highest payment from publicly funded legal aid.
Despite being obliged by law to answer the request within 20 working days, unless there is a valid reason, the information has still not been released.
The LSC says it is keen to disclose the information but that concerns raised by a number of the top earners must be resolved. It is understood that objections were raised on security grounds.
A spokesperson for the LSC said: “The Commission is committed to the publication of the earners from public funds of those practices and practitioners who receive the highest payments from legal aid. Those whose details are to be published have been informed. A number of people have raised issues and concerns which the Commission feels right to resolve before publication”.
SDLP MLA Alex Attwood said that pressure should be put on legal aid lawyers to disclose their earnings.
“There must be full disclosure. Given the level of transparency around what MLAs are paid and what they spend public money on, I feel there should be the same level of transparency around legal firms, solicitors and barristers,” said Mr Attwood.
Despite being obliged by law to answer the request within 20 days,|the information has still not been released
He added however that there is also a responsibility on the public not to rush to judge high costs in many legal cases.
“Legal trials can be very expensive and complicated. We need a level of openness and transparency but the public need to understand there are very complex issues in legal cases which can lead to high levels of costs,” he said.
UUP MLA John McCallister added: “There is no excuse for taking well over two years to respond to a Freedom of Information request. It is in the public interest for these details to be disclosed.”
Concern was raised earlier this year about legal aid expenditure after it emerged that legal aid bills in Northern Ireland more than doubled in the space of a decade.
The cost of legal aid in Ulster soared from almost £30m in the 1997/98 financial year to £69m in 2007/08.
The government has admitted that when compared to other main domestic areas of public spending — such as social care, public safety, health and education — legal aid “has been one of the fastest growing areas of public sector spending over the past few years”.
According to statistics, the rise in legal aid in the province over the past decade is twice the increase seen in England and Wales.
Earlier this week concern was raised over the amount of public funds paid to legal teams in the failed Omagh Bomb trial.
The Belfast Telegraph revealed that the cost to the public has soared to more than £3.5m.
Over £2.4m in legal aid has been paid to the Legal Services Commission to cover the fees and costs of the defence team.
Almost £1.2m was paid to three prosecution barristers in the case which ended in the acquittal of the accused, Sean Hoey, after a 56 day trial.