Belfast Telegraph

Court hearing concluded in five hours, yet legal aid bill topped £45,000

By Adrian Rutherford

A court hearing scheduled to last five days but which ended up taking less than five hours cost the taxpayer almost £50,000, it has been revealed.

The case has been flagged up as an example of waste in the judicial system and comes amid ongoing controversy over Northern Ireland's multi-million pound annual legal aid bill.

It related to murder and attempted murder charges involving five individuals linked to the killing of Dungannon man Eamonn Hughes.

The five appeared in court for a mixed committal hearing – more commonly known as a preliminary inquiry – which is a hearing prior to a case transferring from Magistrates Court to Crown Court for trial.

Defence lawyers for four of the accused sought a preliminary inquiry because they took issue with aspects of evidence supplied by 13 prosecution witnesses.

The defence informed the court five full days would be required to allow evidence from the 13 to be heard.

A week was set aside for the hearing, judicial cover was secured for the regular Magistrates sittings and additional court staff deployed.

But on the first morning the defence said it only required five of the original 13 witnesses – and this was later reduced to four.

It later transpired that none of the accused were actually objecting to the case going to trial.

The hearing concluded at 3.25pm on the same day it opened – leaving the taxpayer with a massive bill.

It has now emerged the short hearing cost morethan £48,000 – including £45,000 legal aid.

Other costs incurred were £1,591 for the prosecution, £1,567 for judicial and staff cover and £240 for courtroom costs.

DUP peer Maurice Morrow (left), who obtained the figures in an Assembly question, said answers were needed. He said: "When the defence was asked why it had required all the witnesses to be in attendance, it replied: 'For good and sufficient reasons'.

"I am anxious to know these reasons.

"I refer to a line within the judgment by District Judge John Meehan stating the committal process which was scheduled to tie up the court for five days 'for no reason which could be explained to the court, and for no discernible advantage to the defence, but as of a right'.

"For some time I have been calling on the Minister for Justice to abolish this type of hearing which are costly to the public purse and serve little or no purpose.

"Issues such as challenging evidence can be adequately dealt with at Crown Court pre-trial.

"The fact the accused in this case were not even objecting to the prosecution's view that there was enough evidence to go to trial raises extremely serious questions, which the minister must examine.

"However, I welcome a recent response from the minister confirming he is indeed planning the abolition of these hearings.

"When the public are picking up the bill it is wholly appropriate they are fully informed of what they are paying for and why.

"I am calling on the minister to look into this particular case and the subsequent ruling, which speaks volumes."

FACTFILE

Costs incurred in five-hour hearing:

Legal Aid: £45,015

Prosecution: £1,591

Court (judiciary and staff costs): £1,567

Facilities: £240

Total: £48,413

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