Fury over £79,000 legal aid bill for fugitive accused McLaughlin
The £79,000 in taxpayers' money spent on legal aid for an on-the-run man accused of involvement in the murder of a prison officer is "a scandalous indictment of the justice system," an MLA has said.
Police have already said sorry to the family of victim David Black, after admitting last week that they have not seen accused Damien Joseph McLaughlin since November.
McLaughlin (40) of Kilmascally Road near Ardboe, Co Tyrone, has not signed bail since then and officers have told a judge they do not know where he is.
Long-serving officer Mr Black (52) was shot dead by dissident republicans as he drove to work at Maghaberry high security prison in November 2012.
Lord Morrow MLA said the public has shelled out almost £49,000 to solicitors acting for McLaughlin and in excess of £30,000 for junior counsel.
"The fees for senior counsel have not yet been submitted but I feel safe in estimating costs are now well in excess of £100,000," the DUP Assemblyman said. "One has to ask how these figures have been reached, given the fact this man has not yet faced trial. However, as I understand it, Legal Aid has now been suspended as McLaughlin remains unlawfully at large.
"The case itself has been in the system for an inordinately long period, having first appeared in court over four years ago in December 2012.
"I have challenged both the current and previous Ministers for Justice as to why Northern Ireland is so slow in progressing cases to trial. Such delay permits a bail opportunity for a person who has been remanded in custody for an undue length of time, and defence lawyers are swift to leap upon the delay, as they did in McLaughlin's case."
Lord Morrow said that after McLaughlin's disappearance while on bail, the Black family had been offered "nothing but horrendously mishandled bail management and excuses for carelessness and slow responses".
"Such actions have possibly denied the family of David Black their opportunity for due process and justice," he added.
"Victims come a sorry second to those accused of offences, who have public funds lavished upon them and, in this instance, that privilege is reciprocated by disappearance. It is a scandalous indictment of the judicial system."
Earlier this month, Stormont's Public Accounts Committee claimed continued failures by the Department of Justice and the Legal Aid Agency were preventing the delivery of an "economic, efficient and effective" system.
It said the £102m average spend since 2011 was unacceptable.