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


Memorandum submitted by The National Audit Office


  1.  The audit opinion on the Legal Aid Fund (Northern Ireland) accounts for 1996-97 and 1997-98 were qualified by the Comptroller and Auditor General because there was evidence that material amounts were not spent in the manner that Parliament intended.

  2.   As the Committee will be aware, the Legal Aid Advice and Assistance (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 sets out the eligibility conditions under which free legal advice and assistance can be provided by solicitors. The conditions include being in receipt of a qualifying social security benefit. In both of the financial years in question, audit procedures found that significant numbers of legal advice and assistance claimants were not in receipt of a qualifying benefit, but were still awarded legal aid. This affected 10 per cent of the claims in 1996-97 and 9.5 per cent of claims in 1997-98. On investigation, the National Audit Office found that the Legal Aid Department did not verify the correctness of declarations by applicants that were in receipt of the relevant social security benefits.

  3.  The Northern Ireland Courts Service and Legal Aid Department took a number of steps to address the issues raised in the Comptroller and Auditor General's reports explaining the qualifications (attached to the financial statements for 1996-97 and 1997-98). These included, in March 1998, amending the form of consent that each applicant must sign before applying for legal aid, to allow the Legal Aid Department to take necessary steps to verify the accuracy of information provided on application forms. In the same month the Department also reached an agreement with the Northern Ireland Social Security Agency that the latter would undertake to verify the correctness of a sample of applicants who stated they were in receipt of benefit. As a consequence of improvements, the Comptroller and Auditor General has been able to give unqualified opinions on the financial statements of the Northern Ireland Legal Aid Fund for the financial years since 1998-99.


  4.  The Comptroller and Auditor General has produced two Value for Money reports on Legal Aid in England and Wales (copies enclosed). These reports, both produced in 1996, covered:

    —  Civil legal aid means testing, HC 242 (1995-96); and

    —  Criminal legal aid means testing in the magistrates' courts, HC 615 (1995-96).

  5.  The main findings of each report related to the lack of confirmation of information supplied by applicants for legal aid and lack of sufficient guidance for staff within the Assessment Office on the identification of claims that may be incorrect. The reports' recommendations included improved guidance for staff and cross checks to other information sources should be carried our as a matter of course to verify applicants' data. Unlike the financial audit work mentioned previously, these reports did not deal with the operation of the scheme in Northern Ireland. However, the recommendations are likely to have had a general application to the operation of the scheme in Northern Ireland and may be worthy of note by the proposed Legal Services Commission of Northern Ireland.

12 March 2001

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 13 July 2001