Barristers' legal aid fees top £1m in Northern Ireland
Legal aid fees received by individual barristers have topped £1m a year, according to figures released by the NI Legal Services Commission.
An individual barrister earned £1.2m from legal aid fees in 2008/2009 - the first time over £1m had been paid to a legal aid counsel in NI.
The following year two barristers exceeded the £1m benchmark, one of them earning almost £1.5m.
Unlike in previous years, individual barristers have not been named.
Solicitors' firms raised no objection to being named, however.
Legal aid is paid by the government on behalf of those who cannot afford lawyers themselves.
The figures paid by the NI Legal Services Commission (NILSC) for legal aid in 2008/2009 and 2009/2010 were released on Tuesday and show the amount earned by solicitors firms and individual barristers is rising.
In 2009-2010 total payments to all barristers amounted to £35m, an increase on the previous year's figure of £25.5m.
Solicitors firms were also paid more in 2009/2010, receiving £62m compared with £58m the year before.
The NILSC said many payments to solicitors and counsel had been made retrospectively for work undertaken over previous years.
Cases may have lasted more than one year and overall earnings may be increased by one exceptional case lasting many years for which payment was received during the financial year in question.
The NILSC also stressed that some payments made to solicitors and barristers may be repaid to the Legal Aid Fund.
This will happen in cases where the party receiving legal aid wins the case and recovers costs from its opponent.
Commenting on the release of the lists, Norville Connolly, President of the Law Society of NI said that the figures "do not reflect what the solicitor actually receives".
He said the fees include solicitors' overheads, including payments to staff, some barristers' fees, witness expenses, and business overheads including rent and rates.
He also pointed out that the level of fees are not set by solicitors but by government or the costs master in the High Court.
Individual barristers were not named this year, although they have been in previous years.
The NILSC said this was because they had received objections from the Bar and individual barristers about naming people.
It says it is taking these representations under consideration, but hopes to release the names at a later date.
The biggest earning legal aid solicitors firm in 2009/2010 was Kevin Winters & Co getting £2.9m (down from £3.3m the previous year).
The next highest paid firm were Madden and Finucane taking £1.8m (up from £1.7m the previous year).
In May 2010 Justice Minister David Ford said he will go ahead with plans to cut millions of pounds from legal aid fees.
A number of barristers have withdrawn from court cases recently, arguing that fees of more than £150 an hour are not enough.
The Court Service, which foots the bill, says the cost in Northern Ireland is too high.
It says the cost has doubled during the past decade, and this year is expected to be £94m.