Belfast Telegraph

£400k court costs for killer stokes new row over how legal aid is spent

By Deborah McAleese

A "pointless" bid by a callous killer to overturn his conviction for murder has exposed Northern Ireland's "bottomless pit" of legal aid cash, it has been claimed.

Martin Murray, who stabbed a father to death as he left his daughter's 18th birthday party seven years ago, has already racked up publicly-funded legal aid bills of an estimated £400,000.

That bill is set to grow as he attempts to take his case to the UK's highest court, despite senior Belfast judges refusing him leave to appeal.

DUP Assemblyman Maurice Morrow said no more public funds should be made available for this case.

The case reignites the legal aid debate, which has seen barristers across Northern Ireland go on strike against funding cuts by the Department of Justice.

Mr Morrow said that "serious examination is going to have to be undertaken of these cases in which Legal Aid is a bottomless pit of public cash for pointless challenges to convictions."

However, the Law Society has warned that cutting the legal aid budget could have a catastrophic impact on access to justice.

Murray (28) attacked Eamonn Hughes with a knife on September 13, 2008, as the 49-year-old walked home from a club in Dungannon after his daughter's party.

In a crime that shocked the local area, Murray and three other men involved in the attack fled in a stolen taxi, which was then used to run down and seriously injure two women who had been giving first aid to Mr Hughes.

Murray is serving a minimum 18-year sentence for murder after he was found guilty during a Crown Court trial. His cost for the trial was more than £100,000.

He was then granted an extra £237,000 in legal aid for a failed High Court challenge in July against his conviction.

Murray's legal team now intends to petition the Supreme Court after senior judges in Belfast refused leave to certify his case to go for appeal to the top UK court, at the taxpayer's expense.

"The evidence and conviction in this particularly brutal murder by Martin Murray, was sound and found as such by senior judges. A line needs to be drawn under that as far as public funding is concerned," Lord Morrow said.

The DUP MLA added: "The claim of a petition directly to the Supreme Court allegedly on the basis of a point of law and in general public importance, would need to be carefully examined, particularly as the public are picking up the bill."

This is the latest high profile murder case to raise questions over legal aid costs.

Last month the Belfast Telegraph revealed that more than £250,000 of public money was spent defending crucifix killer Karen Walsh, who battered a frail pensioner to death. Walsh's bill is set to rise substantially as it does not include the bill for her appeal, which failed earlier this year.

In another case, taxpayers shelled out almost £500,000 to defend child killer Barry McCarney, who beat toddler Millie Martin to death.

Justice Minister David Ford has introduced a number of measures to reduce the legal aid spend.

However, Law Society president Arleen Elliott warned earlier this week that the principle of innocent until proven guilty, regardless of the person or the crime, must be upheld.

"If defendants are not represented across the board it would actually break down the integrity of the system," she said.

Belfast Telegraph


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