Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Scandalous abuse of legal aid fees

It is a story which belongs firmly in the “you couldn’t make it up” category.

The firm of a disgraced solicitor earned more than £1.5m in legal aid payments while he was awaiting trial for incitement to murder and, astonishingly, he was granted legal aid to fight his case. Little wonder that one politician is now demanding an investigation into the affair and whether any of the money can be recouped.

Manmohan (Johnny) Sandhu is serving a 10 year sentence after police recorded him urging someone to kill a taxi driver to prevent him giving evidence about a failed murder bid on him by loyalist terrorists.

It is difficult to imagine a greater breach of ethics and privilege by any member of the legal profession. Yet it never seemed to affect the earning power of his firm, which gained hundreds of thousands of pounds in fees paid for by the taxpayer during investigations into his criminal activity.

Of course not all the money was due to him. There were fees for barristers, witnesses and the running costs of the firm, including payments to staff. However, it is almost incomprehensible how awealthy solicitor could qualify for legal aid when he himself faced trial.

One wonders if there was no communication between those who dispense legal aid fees to the legal profession and those who decide on a defendant’s eligibility for legal aid.

The latest figures show that in the period 2008-10 £120m in legal aid was paid to solicitors in the province and £60.5m to barristers.

There are concerns about the size of the legal aid bill and the scale of fees paid here. The scandalous case of Johnny Sandhu merely highlights a problem which the new Justice Minister, David Ford, must tackle urgently.

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