Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Fourth Report


6. The statutory basis for the present system of legal aid in Northern Ireland is the Legal Aid, Advice and Assistance (Northern Ireland) Order 1981.[9] Responsibility for administering civil legal aid is vested in the Law Society of Northern Ireland[10] and this function is exercised through the Society's Legal Aid Committee and Legal Aid Department. The Law Society also administers most aspects of the criminal legal aid scheme on behalf of the Northern Ireland Court Service.[11] In its memorandum, the Court Service gives a detailed description[12] of the systems of civil and criminal legal aid operating in the Province and of the responsibilities of the main participants.

7. Expenditure on legal aid has grown significantly in recent years and further growth is expected before the reforms take effect. The overall net cost[13] has increased from £21.85 million in 1994-95 to £32.67 million in 1998-99, an increase of nearly 50 per cent.[14] Lord Bach told us[15] that, between 1990-91 and 1999-2000, net fund expenditure had increased by 116 per cent in real terms, compared with 73 per cent in England and Wales over the same period. As the table[16] below shows, the growth in the real cost of criminal legal aid has been disproportionately great.

Rate of growth
Type of legal aid
Northern Ireland
England and Wales

In the financial year 2000-01, about 60 per cent of the total provision of around £38 million was spent on criminal legal aid.[17] Lord Bach pointed out that the proportion of overall legal aid funding devoted to criminal legal aid had increased very markedly since 1991.[18]

8. Despite the rapid rate of increase, net expenditure on legal aid per head of population, and the cost of proceedings, remain lower in Northern Ireland than in England and Wales. Lord Bach thought that this might reflect both lower overheads and lower profits in Northern Ireland.[19]

9. The substantial growth in expenditure does not necessarily appear to correlate with the number of applications granted. Over the period 1995 to 1999, the number of applications granted for criminal legal aid was, if anything, declining.[20] Statistics for the grant of civil legal aid certificates over the period 1993-94 to 1997-98 showed a similar trend,[21] whereas Assistance by Way of Representation (ABWOR) showed a small overall increase.[22]

9  Ev. p. 1. Back

10  Referred to hereafter as "The Law Society". Back

11  Referred to hereafter as "The Court Service". Back

12  Ev. p. 2 to 9. Back

13  The overall net cost figures include expenditure both on the legal aid fund and on the cost of administering legal aid. Back

14  Including the grant-in-aid to the Law Society for administration. Back

15  Q 3, 6 and Ev. p. 26. Back

16  Based on data at Ev. p. 25-26. Back

17  Q14-15. These figures relate to the legal aid fund and exclude the cost of administering legal aid. Back

18  Q 16. Back

19  Q 5. See also Appendix 12, p. 51-53. Back

20  Ev. p. 7. Back

21  Ev. p. 5. Back

22  Ev. p. 4. ABWOR typically represents in the region of 5 per cent of total net expenditure on legal aid, inclusive of administration costs. Back

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Prepared 13 July 2001