Four men — three of them from Northern Ireland — who were found guilty of the manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese migrants found dead in a lorry container in Essex in 2019, were given legal aid totalling more than £770,000.
To date, four of those centrally involved in the shocking crime have been ordered to pay the families of the victims compensation of just £31,493.
The victims, who hoped to travel to the UK for a better life, instead died "excruciating deaths" after suffocating in a container en route from Belgium to Purfleet in Essex in October 2019.
Eamon Harrison (24) towed the trailer with the migrants inside to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge before it made its way to the UK. He was jailed for 18 years in January of last year for his role in the crime.
Co Armagh man Maurice 'Mo' Robinson (26) collected the trailer and found the 39 migrants dead when he opened the container at an industrial estate in Essex. He was jailed for 13 years and four months and ordered to pay the victims' families £21,262.
Two men who played "leading roles" in the trafficking enterprise — Ronan Hughes (41), also originally from Co Armagh, and 43-year-old British Romanian Gheorghe Nica — were jailed for 20 and 27 years, respectively.
Compensation orders in respect of Nica, Harrison and Hughes, are expected in the coming months. In addition to Robinson being ordered to pay compensation following a court ruling in March of this year, three others convicted in the case — Valentin Calota, Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga and Christopher Kennedy, who is also from Armagh — were ordered to pay £1,137, £3,000 and £6,094, respectively.
Figures obtained by the Belfast Telegraph via a Freedom of Information request show that legal teams representing Robinson, Harrison, Nica and Hughes were able to avail of almost three quarters of a million pounds in legal aid during their trial, which concluded in January 2021.
Robinson's legal team received aid totalling £77,155, while Harrison's received £267,061. Nica's legal team was granted aid of £277,528 and Hughes', £148,274. This makes a total of £770,018.
The Legal Aid Agency (LLA) said: "Please note that legal aid is not paid directly to defendants. It is paid to solicitors and barristers for the provision of legal representation to ensure a fair trial. The below costs include disbursements and VAT where applicable.
"Disbursements are expenses incurred which, although paid by the LAA directly to legal aid providers, are then paid to other parties involved in the case.
"Anyone facing a Crown Court trial is eligible for legal aid, subject to a strict means test. Depending on their means, applicants for legal aid can be required to pay contributions up to the entire cost of the defence."
During the trial, the court was played some of the victims' final phone messages to their families, including one in which a man, struggling to breath, apologised to his relatives.
"I can't breathe... I want to come back to my family. Have a good life," he said.
The court was told how each of the migrants, or their families, were to pay the people smugglers between £10,000 and £13,000 for safe passage to the UK.
Sentencing Nica, Robinson, Harrison and Hughes, Justice Sweeney said: "I have no doubt that the conspiracy was a sophisticated, long-running and profitable one to smuggle mainly Vietnamese people across the channel.
"There were desperate attempts to contact the outside world by phone and to break through the roof of the container.
"All were to no avail and, before the ship reached Purfleet, [the victims] all died in what must have been an excruciatingly painful death. The willingness of the victims to try and enter the country illegally provides no excuse for what happened to them."
Earlier this year, a Vietnamese man who was the "ringleader" in the people smuggling operation was jailed by a court in Belgium for 15 years. The court found that Vo Van Hong played a key role in moving at least 15 of those who would later be found dead in the container in Essex.
Following his sentencing, Martin Grace of the National Crime Agency said: “These convictions demonstrate the excellent international co-operation that has continued following the tragic events in Essex in 2019.
“We are proud to have played a role in not just ensuring those involved in the UK have faced justice, but also those overseas who were part of the wider network, in this case in Belgium. We remain determined to do all we can to put all those involved in this event before the courts, no matter where they are.”