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Legal aid cost public purse £94.1m

Brendan Hughes

PAYMENTS to lawyers from the public purse reached almost £100 million last year - with one barrister receiving in excess of £1m.

The £1,070,028 paid to Patrick Lyttle QC, including VAT, was almost double the £541,352 received by the second highest recipient of legal aid funding, Noelle McGrenera QC.

They were among at least 100 barristers in Northern Ireland paid more than £100,000 each in legal aid last year, according to figures published yesterday by the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission (NILSC).

Kevin Winters and Co topped the legal aid list among solicitors' firms for the ninth year in a row, collecting almost £2.5m during 2012/13.

The £2,439,301 total included VAT and almost £382,000 that was re-distributed to others, such as expert witnesses appearing on behalf of the firm's publicly-funded clients.

The total legal aid bill in Northern Ireland was around £94.1m in 2012/13 - divided almost evenly between criminal and civil cases.

Solicitors received just under £61.8m in legal aid funding while barristers were paid about £32.3m.

It represents a small decrease on the £101.7m paid out in legal aid during 2011/12.

Justice minister David Ford has been taking steps to reduce the bill. He has already introduced measures to limit spend on the criminal side and is proposing similar moves with civil cases.

Solicitors and barristers have voiced opposition to the reforms, claiming it is undermining the basic right to good legal representation.

Not all of the money paid to barristers and solicitors was necessarily for work carried out last year, as many payments take years to process.

Ronnie Spence, chairman of the NILSC, said the lists detailing those paid most from legal aid are published to ensure the system is open to public scrutiny.

"The commission remains committed to transparency in accounting for significant sums of public money paid out of the legal aid fund," he said.

"This year the commission has published the total payments made to barristers rather than, as in previous years, reporting some of these payments as made through solicitors."

Mark Mulholland QC, Bar Council chairman, called on the Stormont executive to look beyond individual barristers or legal practices' earnings and recognise the issues driving up demand for civil legal aid.

"We need to use this opportunity to properly debate the cost of publicly funded legal representation, not in terms of how much is paid to one individual or one company this year, but in terms of recognising that unless we get this right, justice in the future will only be available to those who can afford it," he said.

A Department of Justice spokeswoman said: "The justice minister remains committed to securing value for money for the Northern Ireland taxpayer in relation to legal aid.

"Reforms already introduced will reduce expenditure on criminal cases by £18 million and further reforms are currently before the NI Assembly which will reduce the cost of both criminal and civil legal aid."

Top legal aid-earning solicitors (2012/13):

1. Kevin Winters & Co - £2,439,301 2. McConnell, Kelly & Co - £1,620,474 3. Madden & Finucane - £1,465,712 4. McKenna Sweeney McKeown - £1,414,116 5. Trevor Smyth & Co - £1,216,970 6. Donnelly & Wall - £1,023,396 7. Higgins, Hollywood, Deazley - £945,675 8. McCann & McCann - £857,725 9. John Reavey - £780,560 10. Quigley Grant & Kyle - £775,389

Top legal aid-earning barristers (2012/13):

1. Patrick Lyttle - £1,070,028 2. Noelle McGrenera - £541,352 3. Gregory Berry - £532,060 4. Siobhan Keegan - £504,177 5. Arthur Harvey - £473,224 6. Rachel Lyle Farrell - £463,766 7. Barry Macdonald - £440,688 8. Michael Long - £413,716 9. Gavan Duffy - £382,274 10. Brendan Kelly - £376,420

* TOP OF THE LIST: Kevin Winters of Kevin Winters and Co

* BILL: Justice minister David Ford with chairman of the Bar Council of Northern Ireland Mark Mulholland QC. Mr Ford has been taking steps to reduce Northern Ireland's legal aid bill

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