Concerns raised over failure to tackle increasing legal aid bill
Concerns have been expressed over the failure to address Northern Ireland's rising legal aid bill.
The issue was detailed in a report by the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) which examined the management of the criminal and civil legal aid systems run by the Department of Justice and Legal Services Agency.
The NIAO also probed the amount paid out to lawyers here in the last number of years in a report completed by Auditor General Kieran Donnelly.
It shows that annual legal aid expenditure rose from £68.8m in 2018 to £84.3m this year.
The report also reveals that an estimated £5.9m was overpaid in 2018-19 due to fraud or error.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the Stormont Assembly published two reports on legal aid in 2011 and 2017, which were both critical of how the agency managed the budget over a number of years.
It also expressed concerns with the delays to reforming the governance of the legal aid system and that previous assurances to improve the management of the legal aid system following its report in 2011 had not been kept. It contained five recommendations for improvement.
The Auditor General has previously warned that delays in implementing the PAC's recommendations are "undermining the credibility of the legal aid system" in Northern Ireland.
Legal aid is a taxpayer-funded system whereby the Government pays lawyers' fees for people who can't afford representation.
Former justice minister David Ford made reducing the legal aid bill one of his policy priorities and in 2015 he introduced a series of reforms to payments for criminal work, insisting they were necessary and just.
Lawyers took industrial action in response to the cuts, withdrawing professional services in criminal cases in protest.
Reacting to the Audit Office report yesterday, Mr Ford defended his reforms, saying the situation would have been much worse if he had not taken action.
"Progress was made previously in terms of making considerable savings but not as fast as we would have hoped," he said. "There's always more that could be done."
However in his report, Mr Donnelly said: "I accept that there are significant constraints in some areas on the progress that can be made without a minister and a legislative Assembly.
"Even so, I am disappointed by the slow progress that has been made by the department and the agency," he added.
East Londonderry SDLP MLA and former deputy chair of the PAC John Dallat said if the Assembly was functioning, the committee would be playing a critical role on how money would be targeting those in greatest need.
"At the moment, there is little scrutiny of public funds and in the absence of the PAC no opportunity to interrogate the report or to call witnesses," he said.
A Department of Justice spokesperson said it has made "significant changes" to the legal aid system to reduce the total bill in the past year.
The spokesperson said: "While the Comptroller & Auditor General helpfully recognises that there are significant constraints on the progress that can be made without a minister and a legislative Assembly, the department and agency are involved in the delivery of a major transformation programme, including a new digital case management system which went live on July 1 and will help to improve the error reporting accuracy in future."