Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland legal aid reforms 'have not worked'

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Media captionLegal aid reforms 'have not worked'

Reforms introduced to tackle Northern Ireland's legal aid bill have not worked, according to the Audit Office.

A report published on Tuesday said total expenditure on legal aid has actually increased during the past five years, with lawyers paid more than £100m of public money each year.

In 2011, the Audit Office described the legal aid bill as "out of control".

The latest report says a series of reforms introduced since then have failed to achieve their aims.

In 2011-12, more than £101m was paid out in legal aid fees, while last year, the figure rose to more than £106m.

The legal aid fees paid in Northern Ireland have been described as the most generous in the world.

Former justice minister David Ford made reducing the bill one of his policy priorities and introduced a series of reforms that he said would result in significant savings.

Reacting to the Audit Office report, Mr Ford defended his reforms and said the situation would have been much worse if he had not taken action.

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Image caption Former justice minister David Ford faced a strike by barristers and solicitors as he implemented his reforms

The reforms were deeply unpopular with solicitors and barristers, who claimed they would lead to a reduction in the quality of legal representation for those granted legal aid.

The comptroller and auditor general, Keiran Donnelly, has said the reforms have not worked.

An Audit Office report published on Tuesday examines the management of the criminal and non-criminal legal aid systems by the Department of Justice and the Legal Services Agency.

It says reform has been ongoing for more than a decade, but remains "significantly behind schedule".

Mr Donnelly said: "The costs of legal aid have not been effectively managed.

"Reforms to improve the governance of the legal aid system have not been implemented within a reasonable timeframe and have not reduced the high costs of legal aid in Northern Ireland."

The most significant reforms implemented since 2011 have been changes to payments in criminal cases.

However, the Audit Office says criminal legal aid expenditure has remained consistent at between £48m and £51m each year.

Non-criminal legal aid has not been reformed to date, and the report says expenditure has increased significantly from £37m in 2009-10 to £57m in 2014-15.

A long-running legal aid dispute between the Department of Justice and the professional bodies representing barristers and solicitors only came to an end in February after mediation.

The row had resulted in delays in more than 900 court cases, including charges ranging from murder to drink driving.

Speaking on the BBC's Good Morning Ulster, Mr Ford said the findings of the Audit Office was "certainly not the result that was wanted" but said his reforms were beginning to work.

"I think the reference to the costs going up, effectively during the period when I was minister, by £5m - when they'd gone up by tens of millions of pounds in the preceding years - does actually show that the reforms were working but sadly not working as fast as we'd hoped".

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