Lawyers' legal aid fees totalled almost £100m during the last financial year, official figures have confirmed.
Payments from the legal aid fund to solicitors’ practices in 2009/10 topped £62m — a significant rise on the £58m paid out during the previous year.
Barristers earned £35m in 2009/10 — also a marked increase on the previous year's figure of £25.5m — according to the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission (NILSC)
For the third year in a row, Kevin Winters & Co received the highest legal aid payments. It was paid £3,302,628 in 2008/09 and £2,980,008 in 2009/10.
The firm’s high-profile clients have included Sean Hoey, who was acquitted of the Omagh bomb, and Northern Bank employee Chris Ward, who was found not guilty of the 2005 robbery.
Madden and Finucane solicitors was the second highest legal aid earner with £1,814,920 paid during the last financial year and £1,714,421 the year before.
The figures show that last year two advocates exceeded the £1m benchmark, receiving £1,461,399 and £1,196,867 each.
The first time more than £1m had been paid to a legal aid counsel in Northern Ireland was in 2008/09 when a single barrister earned £1.2m.
This year individual barristers have not been named but the Commission said it intends to publish the names “in the future”.
The NILSC said many payments to solicitors and counsel had been made retrospectively for work undertaken over previous years.
It claimed cases may have lasted for longer than a year and overall earnings may be increased by one exceptional case lasting many years for which payment was received during the financial year in question.
The NILSC also stressed that some payments made to solicitors and barristers may be repaid to the legal aid fund if the party receiving them wins the case and recovers costs from its opponent.
In a keynote speech at Stormont, Justice Minister David Ford raised concerns over the spiralling legal aid bill and claimed the current system was unsustainable. He told the Belfast Telegraph cutting the legal aid bill would be a priority for his department.
“The cost of legal aid has more than doubled in the last 10 years and in today’s economic climate it is important that resources are directed to achieve the best possible value,” the minister said.
The Court Service and the Bar Council have been at loggerheads over proposals to cut advocates' fees for over a year, with counsel having withdrawn from a number of cases in recent weeks in protest.
Lord Morrow, chairman of the Assembly’s Justice Committee, said: “This is one of the issues that we have been looking at. The cost of legal aid has escalated. There has to be some curtailment and cutback in the amount of legal aid being handed out.”
1. Kevin Winters & Co — £2,980,008.
2. Madden & Finucane — £1,814,920.
3. Trevor Smyth & Co — £1,639,522.
4. McConnell, Kelly & Co — £1,383,081.
5. McKenna, Sweeney, |McKeown — £1,313,348.
6. McCann & McCann — £1,242,904.
7. Patrick Fahy — £1,008,501.
8. G R Ingram & Co — £936,823.
9. John J Rice & Co — £848,536.
10. Sheridan & Leonard — £835,200.