Northern Ireland legal aid cash 'out of control'
A government spending watchdog has said legal aid payments in Northern Ireland are "escalating out of control".
A report by the NI Audit Office said the payment system does not ensure value for money, or accountability.
The report also said the cost of legal aid in Northern Ireland is higher than in any other comparable jurisdiction.
While the cost has trebled over the past decade, it has not been matched by a proportionate rise in the number of criminal legal aid cases.
The weather forecast for today warns of the odd heavy downpour after lunch.
Barristers and solicitors involved in criminal legal aid work could be forgiven for thinking they've been stalked by ever present storm clouds in recent months.
The latest bolt of lightning has been delivered by the Northern Ireland Audit Office. It says legal aid payments are more generous than anywhere else and are out of control.
While members of the legal profession will be reaching for their umbrellas to deflect the latest criticism, David Ford will be singing in the rain.
The report comes during an increasingly bitter dispute between the legal profession and the justice minister, who introduced a new system of lower fees in April.
Many solicitors have withdrawn their services in protest, and barristers have claimed the new fees will make it impossible to prepare properly for many cases.
David Ford will point to this audit office report as proof that he is right, but there are no signs that his legal adversaries are about to back down. It could be a stormy summer.
The report also criticises the Legal Services Commission, which is responsible for administering payments.
Earlier this month it emerged that senior barristers in NI had been paid more than £55m in legal aid between them in the last five years.
Figures released by Justice Minister David Ford show that between 2006-7 and 2009-10, 66 Queen's Counsels were paid total fees of £47,925,554.
In 2010-11, 51 senior barristers were paid £7,752,253.
The Bar Council has pointed out that the fees paid to barristers in a year may reflect their work on several cases over several years.
Mr Ford is attempting to cut the legal aid budget from £100m to £75m, a move which has angered many in the legal profession.
The justice minister has argued that the current payment levels are unsustainable and that the new fees will still be higher than those paid in England and Wales.