Belfast Telegraph

Taxpayers footed solicitors’ £90m bill for legal aid

By Deborah McAleese

As the ugly pay dispute between David Ford and the legal profession enters its second month, it has been revealed that Northern Ireland’s lawyers earned more than £90 million in publicly funded legal aid over the past year.

Figures released yesterday by the Legal Services Commission show that almost £70m of that money was paid out to solicitors’ firms and £23m was paid to individual barristers.

One legal firm received more than £2.6m in legal aid payments throughout the 2010/11 financial year. It is one of eight firms within the province to make more than £1m.

The top earning barrister in the province that year was paid almost £900,000.

The LSC, which pointed out that the figures could represent payments for work undertaken over a number of years, has withheld the names of the top 100 legal aid earning solicitors’ firms and barristers, saying it wanted to get the information out in the public domain quickly and that the names would be released at a later date.

Questions have been raised by members of the legal profession over the timing of the publication of figures. The publication of the payments comes in the middle of a major row between the justice minister and the legal profession over the future of legal aid expenditure.

In April Mr Ford introduced a new legal aid payment scheme which has meant solicitors are facing payment cuts of 25% in standard criminal cases.

Solicitors across Northern Ireland have begun withdrawing from serious crown court cases in protest at the cuts, leaving more than 100 defendants without legal representation.

Mr Ford has said that he cannot afford to pay lawyers what they want.

The amount of legal aid paid out in the 2010/11 financial year is almost £5m less than the previous year, when the total legal aid payments to barristers and solicitors was £97m.

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