Lawyers 'paid £100m in legal aid'
Lawyers in Northern Ireland were paid more than £100 million in legal aid last year.
Solicitors received more than £68.4 million, with the top 100 firms taking in more than £48.5 million of the total figure. Legal aid barristers' fees were £33.3 million, of which payments to the top 100 were just under £21 million.
Paul Givan, chairman of the Stormont justice committee, said: "The public will be shocked that once again, despite reductions in criminal legal aid fees, we have barristers earning hundreds of thousands of pounds from legal aid. The public will want to know is this really value for money? Is taxpayers' money being used properly? Very clearly, there is a course of action for the Justice Minister to look again at fees being paid both in terms of criminal legal aid but also civil legal aid costs which have increased."
Legal aid is the system where the government pays the cost of lawyers for those who cannot afford to pay. It is higher in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the world. The figures, for the 12 months up to last March, were released by the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission.
Kevin Winters & Co solicitors, which has offices in Belfast and Downpatrick, was paid £2.6 million from the public purse and was the top-earning legal aid practice last year. The next biggest earners for publicly-funded work were Belfast-based Trevor Smyth & Co and McKenna Sweeny McKeown Solicitors Ltd - which has offices in Belfast, Lisburn and Omagh - which were each paid about £1.1 million while the Belfast law firm Madden & Finucane received £1 million.
Of the highest paid legal aid barristers, Dermott Fee QC topped the list with counsel fees of more than £769,000 paid over the 12-month period. In total, more than £4 million was paid in legal aid fees to the top 10 barristers. The figures do not include what lawyers were paid for private work
Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott, who also sits on the justice committee, said the legal aid bill seemed high. "It is very, very high. It is clear a number of firms are receiving substantial amounts of money from legal aid. We want to ensure the justice system is fair and accessible to everyone, but I am not sure just how fair it actually is. I am aware there is a significant review under way but I think there needs to be an overall review looking at who qualifies and how they qualify," he said.
In 2011 some solicitors went on strike over the introduction of lower legal aid fees which they claimed would damage the quality of legal representation on offer to those who qualify for legal aid.
Ronnie Spence, chair of the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission, said: "The commission remains committed to transparency in accounting for significant sums of public money paid out of the legal aid fund. This year, for the first time, the commission has been able to publish the total payments made to barristers rather than reporting some of these payments as made through solicitors. I welcome the continued co-operation of the Law Society and the Bar Council in the publication of this information."
Chair of the Bar Council Mark Mulholland QC said the organisation had worked proactively to improve the system of recording and reporting on legal aid spending to demonstrate value for money for the public purse. He said: "Today's report demonstrates the continuing demand for legal representation at the most senior level by barristers working in highly complex cases. It does not, however, fully reflect the fact that payments, as stated, often represent a body of work that spans several years."