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Legal aid bill still £2m a week despite pledges to slash cost

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 28/07/2016

The figures were disclosed by Justice Minister Claire Sugden after an Assembly question from DUP MLA Edwin Poots
The figures were disclosed by Justice Minister Claire Sugden after an Assembly question from DUP MLA Edwin Poots

Almost £100m was spent on legal aid in Northern Ireland in the last year.

The bill is still running at nearly £2m a week - largely unchanged compared to six years ago - despite pledges to slash the cost.

Legal aid is the system where the government pays for lawyers for those who cannot afford legal representation.

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

In the 12 months to April the bill topped £95,841,000. It is down on the 2014/15 cost, which reached a record £111,393,000 but represents only a modest fall since 2010. That is despite a series of high-profile attempts to curb spending.

The figures were disclosed by Justice Minister Claire Sugden after an Assembly question from DUP MLA Edwin Poots.

The costs rose by 15% between 2009/10 and 2014/15, before dropping to under £100m in the last year.

Mr Poots said previous minister David Ford had failed to properly address the spiralling bill.

"Many people will find it unacceptable that given the public have been forced to endure a period of austerity, the legal profession can appear to continue unaffected," he said.

Last month a report published by a spending watchdog said reforms introduced to tackle Northern Ireland's legal aid bill had not worked.

In 2011 the Audit Office said legal aid here was "out of control".

Its latest report said the reforms introduced since then failed to achieve their aims.

Mr Poots added: "The Audit Office recently concluded that the series of reforms introduced by David Ford failed, but it seems inconceivable that the Minister was not aware during the process that costs were continuing to rise."

A Department of Justice spokesperson said: "Further reforms to fees paid in the civil courts are also at an advanced stage and work is ongoing in a number of other areas. The Minister is committed to continuing that reform programme, ensuring that the most vulnerable in our society can access representation while those who can afford to pay do so."

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