No excuse for paying Northern Ireland lawyers 50% more, says report
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.
The publication of CJI's report on legal services use comes amid the legal aid row 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 had decided not to make a detailed review of the legal aid arrangements because the Audit Office was already engaged in such an exercise, but said it was "impossible not to comment" on the system.
Inspectors found that:
- on average the payments made to lawyers were 20% more than in England and Wales, and up to 50% in some cases;
- prosecutors are paid - through the Public Prosecution Service - on average 30% more than their UK counterparts.
"Inspectors can see no justification at the present time for legal costs (defence and prosecution) which are so different within the UK," 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.
While prosecutors get paid better in Northern Ireland, the CJI noted that they still get significantly less than defence lawyers in the region. Defence teams gets paid 29% more than prosecution in Northern Ireland. In England and Wales the difference is 19%, with a plan to reduce it to 5%.
"This level of disparity puts the prosecution at a significant disadvantage when seeking to instruct counsel," found Dr Maguire.
Dr Maguire said the Department of Justice was best placed to address these issues.
Story so far
For more than two months members of the legal profession and David Ford have been at loggerheads over controversial new legal aid fees for Crown Court cases. Solicitors say they cannot afford to properly represent defendants under the new rates, which in some cases amount to pay cuts of more than 50%. Over 200 crime suspects have been left without legal representation.