Belfast Telegraph

Legal aid staff 'need pay privacy'

Legal aid lawyers should have the same privacy as doctors when it comes to publicising their incomes, Stormont's Justice Committee has been told.

Gerald McAlinden QC, chairman of the Northern Ireland Bar Council, questioned why barristers and solicitors were singled out from other publicly funded professions.

He said: "Why are lawyers, legal aid practitioners, being singled out by being named on lists whereas other recipients of public funding such as general practitioners are not singled out?"

Mr McAlinden was at Stormont to outline the impact of proposed multimillion-pound cuts to the legal aid budget. He said although GPs wages were made public, individuals were not named.

"Why are counsel and solicitors being singled out for publication when other professional groups in Northern Ireland are not similarly personally identified?" he added.

Legal aid expenditure is higher in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the world.

Last year the highest earning barrister Patrick Lyttle QC, made more than £1 million, while t hree others received in the region of £500,000 each from the public purse.

Kevin Winters solicitors in Belfast acquired £2.4 million in legal aid, while five other firms of solicitors each earned more than £1 million.

The Legal Services Commission first introduced the practise of publishing lawyers' earnings in 2008.

In 2011 barristers went on strike in opposition to Justice Minister David Ford's plans to slash about £20 million from the criminal legal aid budget.

Last year the minister turned his attention to the civil legal aid budget and devised proposals to save around £14 million.

Mr McAlinden said the full impact of the 2011 cuts had not yet been realised and claimed t he system was on the verge of a "significant tipping point".

He also told MLAs any reduction in funding would undermine public confidence in the justice system; reduce access to justice and compound the difficulties experienced in complex cases.

DUP MLA Paul Givan, who chairs the justice committee, said dire warnings about the impact of cuts in 2011 had not materialised.

Jim Wells, also of the DUP said: "You have to go a long way down the list to find someone on a quarter of a million pounds a year. In the real world, a quarter of a million pounds is quite a good salary."

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