Northern Ireland

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 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.

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