Belfast Telegraph

Spiralling legal aid costs make Northern Ireland system most expensive in world

By Adrian Rutherford

NORTHERN Ireland has the most expensive legal aid budget in the world, and the publication of lawyers' payments will reopen the debate on the controversial system.

Over the last 13 years the amount of public funds spent on criminal and civil cases has soared, spiralling from £37m in 1999/2000 to £95m last year.

Relative to the size of our population, we spend more on legal aid than anywhere else.

It costs around £56 per person, compared to £36 in England and Wales. In the Republic of Ireland the cost per person is around £20.

The 2012/13 total was divided almost evenly between criminal and civil cases.

Justice Minister David Ford has taken steps to cut the criminal legal aid bill and is proposing similar measures on the civil side.

Both moves have been strongly opposed by many within the legal profession, who claim the public's right to representation will be compromised.

In 2011, lawyers launched unofficial strike action and refused to take on new cases after Mr Ford cut their pay in criminal cases.

The Belfast Telegraph has previously revealed how an additional £20m is needed each year to pay lawyers and court costs because the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission exceeds its budget.

Next year it could run £40m over budget.

Last month a report by Criminal Justice Inspection NI called for the Legal Services Commission to be given more powers to bring the "spiralling" bill under control.

At present, judges decide whether defendants in criminal cases can obtain legal aid.

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