Northern Ireland's Director of Public Prosecutions has called for a root-and-branch review of how legal aid is paid to defence lawyers, claiming they have access to an apparent "bottomless pit" of public funds.
Barra McGrory QC said it was not right that the proportion of money distributed to defence solicitors and barristers representing clients supported by the state was around double that of the Public Prosecution Service's (PPS) £35 million annual budget.
Mr McGrory said the establishment of a public defenders office was one possible way to bring spending on both sides into line while also introducing a needed measure of regulation over defence advocates, whom he claimed were operating "a free market on the public purse".
"I think there needs to be a root-and-branch examination of the criminal justice system to have a look at just why the defence costs appear to be a bottomless pit," he said.
The head of the PPS acknowledged recent measures introduced by Stormont Justice Minister David Ford to reduce the fees paid to defence teams in criminal cases but said more substantive reform was needed.
Mr McGrory was a prominent defence lawyer himself before joining the prosecution service.
"In a sense I am poacher turned gamekeeper but I know it from both sides, and one of the things that struck me coming into the prosecution service is how under-resourced it is compared to the defence," he said.
"I have to work at not getting annoyed when people say 'you took this case and it cost a fortune' - with the greatest of respect, the vast bulk of money that was spent on the case came from defending it."
He added: "I look over the fence now where I used to be - they are very well resourced and I just think simply tinkering with the method of calculating the fees doesn't tackle the problem. There needs to be a deeper and specific examination of how the money is spent."
Legal aid spend on criminal cases has reduced on the back of Department of Justice reforms - from £60 million two years ago to £48 million this year - but the overall bill for defence lawyers still well exceeds the PPS's budget.