Exposed: the legal aid ‘gravy train’
Lawyers have been warned that their "gravy train" is over as a damning Audit Office report today highlights a decade of mismanagement within the criminal legal aid system.
Solicitors and barristers have been accused by politicians of abusing a poorly controlled legal aid system, which saw many members of the profession benefiting from "scandalously high pay packets at the public expense".
Calls have also been made by members of the justice committee for answers from those responsible for the management of a system that allowed criminal legal aid bills to almost treble in the space of 10 years.
A report released today by the Northern Ireland Audit Office raises concerns that the current framework for managing criminal legal aid does not "ensure value for money for the taxpayer and proper accountability".
The report states that the complex system for granting and authorising the payment of criminal legal aid has "given rise to difficult issues in terms of proper accountability for public funds".
It also raises questions over the levels of criminal legal aid payments granted to members of the legal profession over the past decade.
Since 2003, the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission has spent £340m on criminal legal aid which is paid to cover the cost of defendants' counsel.
The criminal legal aid bill for Northern Ireland escalated from £22m in 2000/01 to £60m in 2009/10, before falling back to £51m last year.
Today's report says that "this rapid growth in expenditure has not been matched by a proportionate increase in the number of criminal legal aid cases."
The Law Society said that the blame for the spiralling costs of legal aid over the years should lie with those responsible for the system's management and oversight.
"There has been a system devised and practitioners have worked the system that was there. There appears to have been a complete lack of checks, balances and control.
"It is not really fair to blame the recipients of a system that was not adjudicated. Blame the people who have devised the system, implemented and supervised the system," Law Society President Brian Speers said.
Mr Speers said it is unfair to suggest that lawyers took advantage of the system.
"Practitioners put in their invoices and those payments were authorised and approved. It has nothing to do with the society or barristers. It is all to do with the administrators of the system in place.
"Clearly the system needs improved. That is something that the Law Society will be working closely on with those we need to work with," he added.
The report comes in the middle of a bitter battle between the legal profession and David Ford over cuts to legal aid payments in crown court cases. Lawyers have withdrawn from crown court cases saying they cannot adequately represent a defendant for the new rates of pay.
Justice committee member, Jim Wells MLA, said that the legal profession will just have to accept the cuts.
"Clearly the gravy train has to end. Lawyers have been making an absolute killing, I just don't understand where they are coming from when they are saying they cannot properly represent suspects under the new legal aid rates.
"They are more than well paid. They have been making a fortune over the past 10 to 15 years and now it is time for them to take a bit of a hit they are panicking. Now that David Ford is cracking the whip they don't like it," he said.
Chairman of the justice committee, Paul Givan MLA, said that questions now have to be asked of those who were responsible for allowing the legal aid system to get out of control.
"Members of the legal profession were receiving scandalously high pay packets at the public expense.
"Now with this report there is greater transparency and people can see that the system which existed was not fit for purpose.
"There are serious questions to be asked about those responsible for the management of legal aid. There was a complete breakdown of control and lawyers took advantage of that," he added.
Shocking dossier on a system's soaring costs
Kieran Donnelly's report has delivered a number of damning findings on how criminal legal aid has been managed in Northern Ireland over the past decade.
The expenditure almost trebled within that time and still remains higher than any other comparable jurisdiction.
According to the Audit Office report some of the main reasons for the soaring cost to the public purse include:
* If solicitors and barristers complained that the prescribed standard court fee for a case was not enough, it was normal practice to receive a payment increase. From 2000 to 2009 more than half of the legal aid- funded cases in magistrate courts were granted increased payments on request. In many of these cases the lawyers received three times more than the standard rate.
* Lawyers still dissatisfied with the increased rate have a right to make a case to the Legal Services Commission to increase their fees even further. The audit report found that it was "uncommon for fees to be reduced". An additional £10m was paid out to legal practitioners in crown court cases since 2003 in increased payments.
* In Very High Costs Cases (VHCC), which are cases where the trial is likely to last more than 25 days, higher remuneration rates for these cases were still being paid out even if the trial did not run or lasted less than the 25 days.
Since 2005 only 11% of VHCCs have proceeded to trial lasting more than 25 days. In cases that did not go to trial or the trial lasted a shorter time, the Legal Services Commission had no statutory power to reduce the level of fees payable, meaning that practitioners still received the higher rates of remuneration.
It is believed that £23m may have been paid out since 2005 in respect of cases which failed to go on trial lasting longer than 25 days.
l The report stated that the VHCC system, which was recently scrapped, was set up to control costs but it did the opposite. Five VHCC cases were expected a year, but in practice there have been 27 a year.
* Practitioners who failed to submit a breakdown of the work they had undertaken and an estimate of costs in VHCC as required by legislation, still received a VHCC certificate from the commission, entitling them to receive the higher remuneration fees.
Even though the commission had the power to revoke a VHCC certificate it has never used these powers.
* In 55% of cases two defence barristers were assigned, compared to just 5% of cases in England and Wales.
The audit report also states that every year since the Legal Services Commission was established in 2003 to administer civil and criminal legal aid, its budget has been exceeded, requiring almost £150m in additional funding.
Although the commission is expected to generate efficiency savings of almost £30m by 2013/14, the forecast expenditure remains in excess of the budget.
Concern has also been raised that a reform programme to reduce costs was to be implemented by the commission in autumn 2007, but has been delayed until March 2014.