Cost of legal aid remains static despite fall in number of cases

Attempts to reform legal aid saw a nine month dispute in 2015 when lawyers walked out of cases in protest at changes to fees. Picture by Hugh Russell
John Monaghan

LESS than half of all cases which concluded in magistrates courts' in Northern Ireland in the last five years were funded by legal aid.

The annual percentage of legal aid funded cases in the magistrates court has remained static despite the total number of hearings falling by more than a quarter, from 54,000 to 40,000.

However, the number of legal aid claims arising from crown court cases has dropped by a third, falling from a high of 6,484 in 2013 to just over 4,500 last year.

The average cost for a magistrates court case funded by legal aid in the last five years was £601, in contrast to £4,550 for cases in the crown court.

The reduction in the number of claims comes after disputes between the legal profession and the Executive, which has attempted to cut the bill.

Since 2011, the average spend on legal aid - where public money is used to pay for those unable to afford court representation - has been around £102 million, with Northern Ireland having one of the highest bills per head of population.

However, it has reduced in recent years, falling from £105m in 2014/15 to an estimated £85 million in 2016/17.

The figures, contained in a Freedom of Information request seen by The Irish News, show that between 2012 and 2016, more than 230,000 cases were heard in magistrates courts across the north, with less than 50 per cent - 108,000 - funded by legal aid.

Almost 37,000 - nearly one in three - of those hearings went to a contest, with seven sittings on average in each case.

There have been more than 27,000 claims for legal aid in crown court cases in the five years from 2012 to 2016.

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