Belfast Telegraph

Taxpayer footed £110,000 bill for case which was withdrawn

By Adrian Rutherford

The taxpayer met the cost of a £110,000 legal aid bill linked to a court challenge which was later withdrawn, it has been revealed.

A further £424,332 was wasted on four other cases which were unsuccessful.

The costs were disclosed by the Justice Minister after an Assembly question from DUP MLA Lord Morrow.

He requested the three highest legal aid bills for judicial review proceedings in each of the last two years.

The Fermanagh-South Tyrone MLA, who has been critical of legal aid expenditure in the past, called for greater scrutiny.

A judicial review is a court proceeding in which a judge reviews the lawfulness of a decision or action made by a public body.

They challenge the way in which a decision has been made, rather than the conclusion reached.

One high-profile judicial review led to a High Court judge quashing a £330m road project between Aughnacloy and Derry in April 2013.

A judicial review was also taken over former Health Minister Edwin Poots's ban on gay men giving blood.

Lord Morrow sought costs for the three most expensive legal aid bills for judicial reviews.

Mr Ford revealed costs totalling £604,855 for the six cases - £291,186 in 2013/14 and a further £313,669 in 2014/15.

In one case the challenge was withdrawn - but the taxpayer was still left with a £112,478 legal aid bill.

Another four were unsuccessful - at a combined cost of £424,331. The most expensive case saw a legal aid bill of £170,494 amassed. The second highest totalled £134,934.

Because these are classed as civil cases, the specific nature of the judicial review cannot be disclosed. Lord Morrow said it meant it was impossible to fully examine the expenditure or reasoning for the challenge.

However, he said the costs underlined the need for closer examination when granting judicial reviews.

"With almost £500,000 paid out in unsuccessful cases, there must be some form of tighter scrutiny established to ensure these are not simply trophy cases which stood no chance of a positive outcome," he said.

"Judicial reviews are a critical component of a fair society but should always be a last resort.

"There is going to have to be dramatic changes to bring these publicly funded cases in line with all other aspects of best practice, accountability and justified expenditure. These figures clearly demonstrate why significant change is a matter of urgency.

In a previous written answer, Mr Ford said the average costs for legal aid in judicial review cases in the last year was £10,179.

A Department of Justice spokesperson said: "The criteria for the grant of leave to proceed with judicial review are set by both statute and case law. It is for the judge dealing with the application to scrutinise the validity of the leave application and whether the applicant has presented an arguable case.

"The minister has recently published for consultation the Report of the Access to Justice Review Part II. The report makes recommendations concerning judicial reviews and how they are funded, including in relation to discouraging unmeritorious applications."

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