Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


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contained in the legal aid application presented to the court was correct, but that the legal aid certificate could be withdrawn should it afterwards appear that this information was incorrect.

  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.

April 2000

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