Belfast Telegraph

Lawyers in dock over legal aid bill

Editor's Viewpoint

The legal profession in Northern Ireland is playing hardball with the Department of Justice over legal aid payments, which has already led to some disruption in the work of the courts. However their argument over the level of remuneration they should receive has been dealt a severe blow, at least in the public mind, by yesterday's report from the Criminal Justice Inspection.

Over three years around £155m was paid in legal aid for solely criminal cases in Northern Ireland. On average payments made to lawyers here, according to the report, were 20% higher than in England and Wales and up to 50% more in some cases.

Like the CJI, the layman struggles to find a reason for such disparity. The cost of living and the overheads of the legal profession are not different in the two jurisdictions, with Northern Ireland possibly cheaper in some instances.

Lawyers here have maintained that drastically cutting their fees to the level of those in England and Wales would reduce the level of service to clients and impact on justice.

But, as the CJI points out, there is already an impact on the courts system. The Public Prosecution Service finds it difficult on occasion to find lawyers to prosecute cases because they earn less per case than defence lawyers, though both are paid from the public purse. Even then our prosecuting lawyers are paid more than their counterparts in England and Wales.

While there may be some merit in the legal profession's argument that the different pay scales between Northern Ireland and England and Wales reflect the different legal systems, the CJI report's contention that there is nothing than could justify the great discrepancy in payments is more compelling.

That is not to say that there should just be a complete adoption of the England and Wales pay scales, but certainly it seems that payments here - at a time when every other publicly funded service is facing restraint - do need to be trimmed significantly.

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