Higher legal fees 'not justified'
There is no justification for paying lawyers in Northern Ireland as much as 50% more per case than their counterparts elsewhere in the UK, inspectors have found.
High legal aid fees paid to defence teams in the region are also making it harder for the Crown to find lawyers willing to prosecute cases, according to the Criminal Justice Inspection for Northern Ireland (CJI).
The publication of the CJI's report on legal services use comes amid the ongoing dispute over legal aid which has seen lawyers refuse to take cases in protest at Justice Minister David Ford's plans to cut the total bill.
Chief inspector Dr Michael Maguire said he has decided not to make a detailed review of the legal aid arrangements because the Audit Office is already engaged in such an exercise, but he said it is "impossible not to comment" on some aspects of the system.
He drew particular attention to the fees paid out in comparison to England and Wales and the disparity in funding between prosecutors and defenders.
Around £155 million was paid in legal aid for solely criminal cases over three years in Northern Ireland.
Inspectors found that on average the payments made to lawyers in the region was 20% more than in England and Wales, and up to 50% in some cases.
Prosecutors are paid - through the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) - on average 30% more than their counterparts across the Irish Sea.
"Inspectors can see no justification at the present time for legal costs (defence and prosecution) which are so different within the United Kingdom," said Dr Maguire. "Neither the cost of living nor the overheads of professional practice appear to be significantly different between Northern Ireland and England and Wales - indeed some costs are lower in Northern Ireland."
Local lawyers have insisted that comparisons with other jurisdictions are not fair as there are significant differences in the legal systems which result in the higher average.