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Justice Minister questions watchdog's report on legal aid bill

Stormont's Justice Minister has questioned the findings of a damning report by the Assembly's financial watchdog on Northern Ireland's multi-million pound legal aid bill.

In an unusual move, Claire Sugden has challenged some of the conclusions draw by the Public Accounts Committee investigation.

She said the report lacked explanation and context around some key issues.

Earlier this month, the PAC 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 £102 million average spend since 2011 was unacceptable.

Legal aid is the system where the state pays for lawyers for those who cannot afford court representation.

It has long been a source of controversy, with Northern Ireland having one of the highest bills in the world proportionate to the population.

Attempts to reduce expenditure in recent years led to two unofficial strikes by members of the legal profession who refused to take on new cases under revised pay rates.

In 2011, the PAC made recommendations to introduce significant reform of the legal aid system.

However, the committee's latest report said that "reforms have not been implemented effectively and at an average annual cost of £102 million since 2011, the costs of legal aid remain unacceptably high".

The report said the "current system lacks a basic mechanism to ensure quality of service and to deliver accountability and transparency in the use of public money".

Ms Sugden told the Press Association that the use of an average spend figure in the report did not reflect the fact the legal aid bill had been falling.

In 2014/15, the bill was around £106 million, in 2015/16 it was £91 million and the estimated spend for 16/17 is £85 million.

The minister said the report also did not acknowledge that there had been a spike in the number of cases through the Crown Court a number of years ago - which had an impact on the legal aid outlay.

The number of Crown Court cases surged from around 1,600 in 2011/12 to 2,600 the following year.

It was again around 2,600 the year afterwards and since fallen back again to around the 1,600 figure.

The surge was due to proactive steps by Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan to address a significant backlog of cases that had built up prior to 2012.

"Legal aid is a challenging issue," said Ms Sugden.

"I do not doubt that there is more to be done, and I do acknowledge that there has been some delay due to the nature of the issues involved. However, my department has made real progress with more work soon to be completed.

"The PAC report states that the cost of legal aid has increased, but does not explain why. It is imperative to put this into context.

"Legal Aid expenditure is demand led, and the very significant increase in volumes in the Crown Court, in the period under review, impacted on Legal Aid costs. Without the reforms already implemented, the costs of legal aid would have been considerably higher.

"The reforms are having a real impact and the cost of Legal Aid provision in Northern Ireland has reduced from £106 million in 2014/15 to a projected total of under £85 million for 2016/17 - of which £59 million had been spent by the end of December."

Minister Sugden added: "I am also driving forward a transformation programme in the Legal Services Agency to ensure that the cost of providing these essential services represent best value for money.

"It is also important to state that a balance needs to be struck between reducing cost, and the consequences of limiting the ability for people across Northern Ireland to be able to access justice.

"Last year alone, the Legal Aid system provided over 97,000 acts of assistance to people in need.

"Independent legal representation is at the heart of our justice system and is vital in helping people, especially the most vulnerable in our society, to secure access to justice."

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