Memorandum submitted by the Lord Chancellor's
Legal Aid Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland
The Legal Aid Advisory Committee for Northern
Ireland is not aware of any specific abuses of the criminal legal
aid scheme in Northern Ireland but does have a number of concerns
about criminal legal aid, and some about the legal aid scheme
in general, which it believes the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee
might profitably examine.
1. In the interests of transparency, and
because this information is provided annually in Scotland by the
Scottish Legal Aid Board, we have been attempting for several
years to obtain information about the leading earners in both
civil and criminal legal aid. The Law Society of Northern Ireland
has tended to rebuff such requests by stressing the difficulty
in assembling this information and the perceived security risk
to practitioners thereby identified.
2. We share the concerns previously expressed
by the Public Accounts Committee about criminal legal aid being
granted to persons claiming to be in receipt of passport benefits
who have afterwards turned out not to be receiving such benefits.
We have proposed that this problem be addressed by the preparation
of a statutory instrument providing for the conditional grant
of legal aid. Legal aid would thus be granted on the footing that
the information contained in the legal aid application presented
to the court was correct, but that the legal aid certificate could
be withdrawn should it afterwards appear that this information
3. We believe that the procedure for assessing
criminal legal aid fees laid down by the Legal Aid in Criminal
Proceedings (Costs) Rules (Northern Ireland) 1992 is both cumbersome
and lacking in transparency. Although a new system is likely to
be introduced as part of the Government's reforms to the legal
aid scheme we believe that reform should not be delayed for the
time it will take for all these reforms to be implemented.
4. For several years now we have experienced
concern about the rate of increase in the average cost of criminal
legal aid payments in Northern Ireland. We have no reason to suppose
that this evidences any abuse of the system, but the absence of
any analysis or explanation for this phenomenon is troubling.
5. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee
is almost certainly aware that a White Paper containing detailed
proposals for the reform of the legal aid system in Northern Ireland,
both civil and criminal legal aid, is in the course of preparation.
The Legal Aid Advisory Committee is concerned that these proposals
should not take the form of an importation of English reforms
without testing whether they are appropriate to Northern Ireland.
The Committee is particularly concerned that no research has been
carried out into the provision of legal aid services in Northern
Ireland so as to inform policy makers of the real needs of consumers
in the Northern Ireland market.