Revealed: What Northern Ireland's top barristers earned last year
A woman has topped the list of high-earning barristers in Northern Ireland with payments worth three quarters of a million pounds.
Eilis McDermott, who has practised since 1974 and was the first woman to become a Queen's Counsel, received fees of £770,035, figures from the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission said.
A total of £23.7 million was paid to barristers in 2010/11, compared to £35 million the previous year and £25.5 million in 2008/9.
Firms of solicitors, many of whom went on strike last year over changes to fees paid for certain cases, earned almost £70 million, with Kevin Winters and Company paid £2.6 million.
Mother-of-three Ms McDermott was born in Londonderry in 1950, becoming a student at Queen's University in 1968, from where she graduated in 1972. She now lives in Belfast and works as a criminal law barrister.
She has worked on the long-running Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday and represents Gerry Adams' brother Liam, who faces prosecution for alleged sex offences.
A list of the 100 highest-earning barristers and law firms was published by the commission today.
Stormont justice committee chairman Paul Givan, commenting on the legal system in the higher courts in general, said: "A culture has developed in Northern Ireland where two counsel was awarded without any other consideration being given to whether or not the case merited it."
He said that was changing, with magistrates to be required to given written reasons justifying their decisions, which often take only seconds, to authorise appointing two barristers to represent the accused or prosecution service during crown court cases.
Mr Givan also said there needed to be better documentation behind claims which barristers submitted to the commission, adding they had relatively low overheads.
Jim Gallagher QC came second on the barristers list behind Ms McDermott. Other well-known names included Arthur Harvey QC and barrister, GAA commentator and former player Joe Brolly.
The top 10 earners were:
:: E McDermott
:: J Gallagher
:: D Hopley
:: P Magee
:: A Harvey
:: J Orr
:: C Maccreaner
:: D Fee
:: W Berry
:: K Mallon
According to the commission, payments received in one financial year do not necessarily reflect work done in that financial year. This is because cases may have lasted more than a year and overall earnings may be increased by one exceptional case lasting several years for which payment was received during the financial year in question.
Barristers also pay professional overheads, many higher rate tax and national insurance contributions.
Ronnie Spence, chair of the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission, said: "The commission is committed to transparency in accounting for significant sums of public money paid out of the legal aid fund."
Justice Minister David Ford said: "I welcome today's publication by the Northern Ireland Legal Service Commission as it brings a new level of transparency to legal aid payments in Northern Ireland.
"These payments were made under the old rates but through the reforms I have introduced to bring down the cost of legal aid, I expect to see these payments on a downward trend in the future."