Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland £90m legal aid gravy train not sustainable, says MLA

By Adrian Rutherford

OVER £90m was handed out in legal aid payments to Northern Ireland's lawyers in the last year.

Solicitors received £62m, with the top 100 firms sharing £45m.

It includes £2.4m paid to one practice, Kevin Winters & Co. A further £32m was paid to barristers, almost two-thirds of which (£21m) was shared by 100 individuals.

The payments, released yesterday by the Legal Services Commission, have prompted fresh calls for a review of legal aid.

DUP MLA Paul Givan, who chairs the Stormont justice committee, said the current spending could not continue.

"The overall figure of £94m cannot be sustained going into the future – it has to be reduced," he told the Belfast Telegraph. "We have already taken steps to reduce criminal legal aid, and clearly further steps need to be taken, but the big area which now needs to be addressed is civil legal aid."

Mr Givan said the legal aid payments to barristers gave particular cause for concern.

"Unlike solicitors, who will have a number of offices and administrative staff, barristers have minimal overheads," he added.

"Any barrister that is earning multiple figures when it comes to hundreds of thousands of pounds just isn't right, and I don't see the great legal expertise to justify that, especially when we have consultants and surgeons often paid less."

Legal aid is a taxpayer-funded system where the Government pays lawyers' fees for people who can't afford representation.

The 100 solicitors' practices and barristers who receive the highest payments from legal aid are published annually.

According to the new figures, which cover the 12 months to March 31 this year, £94.1m was paid out.

Solicitors shared £61.8m, with the top 100 receiving £44,547,386 and the next 100 sharing a further £11,155,598.

Kevin Winters & Co, which has offices in Belfast and Downpatrick, received £2,439,301.

One of Northern Ireland's best known solicitors, Mr Winters' clients have included Sean Hoey, who was acquitted of the Omagh bomb, and Northern Bank employee Chris Ward, who was found not guilty of the 2005 robbery.

The second biggest earner was McConnell, Kelly & Co, which has offices in east Belfast, Dundonald and Bangor. The practice received £1,620,474.

Madden & Finucane, whose clients include Peru drugs mule Michaella McCollum, was third on the list, receiving £1,465,712.

Three other firms received over £1m – McKenna, Sweeney, McKeown, which is based in Belfast, Lisburn and Omagh; Trevor Smyth & Co; and Donnelly & Wall, both of which are based in Belfast.

Meanwhile, barristers' legal aid payments totalled £32.3m.

Richard Palmer, president of the Law Society of Northern Ireland, said legal aid ensured society's most vulnerable had access to justice.

Belfast Telegraph


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