Belfast Telegraph

Watchdog slams failure to rein in £100m legal aid bill in Northern Ireland

By Adrian Rutherford

Little progress has been made in reducing Northern Ireland's sky-high legal aid bill, a spending watchdog has said.

The annual cost has been running at more than £100m on average since 2011.

Stormont's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said expenditure was still "unacceptably high".

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

It has long been a source of controversy because of the huge cost.

When the PAC previously examined Northern Ireland's legal aid spending in 2011, it called on the Department of Justice and Legal Services Agency to urgently reform the system and to establish effective financial controls over cost.

However, today's report says minimal progress has been made.

Committee chair Robin Swann said: "What we have found in this inquiry is that these reforms have not been implemented effectively and the costs of legal aid have continued to climb.

"We are seeing average annual costs of £102m per year since 2011 - this is simply unacceptable."

The report strongly criticises the "entirely unacceptable" failure to implement a statutory registration scheme for legal services providers.

It says the absence of a scheme means the legal aid system lacks a basic mechanism to ensure quality of service and to deliver accountability and transparency in the use of public money.

The PAC also noted that non-criminal legal aid - in other words for civil cases - has not been reformed to date, resulting in excessive costs being incurred year after year.

Mr Swann said: "The committee is not convinced that the department has conducted a serious examination of the potential benefits that could be derived from contracting with providers for publicly funded legal aid in Northern Ireland.

"The department needs to seriously examine whether contracting these services would both save money while maintaining the rights of those accessing the justice system."

MLAs found little progress has been made in updating the Legal Services Agency's information systems since the original PAC report in 2011.

This, together with an under-resourced fraud unit, have left the agency and the department with the possibility of being overexposed and without the means to ensure that monies are spent appropriately.

The first phase of a new digitised management information system will not be fully in place by 2018.

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