Committee Finds Little Progress in Reducing Cost of Legal Aid
Session: Session currently unavailable
Date: 11 January 2017
Reference: PAC 08/16/17
The Public Accounts Committee has found little progress has been made in reducing the cost of legal aid. The conclusion came in a report, published today, into Managing Legal Aid, which followed up on a previous Committee report issued in 2011.
Speaking about today’s Report, Chairperson of the Committee, Robin Swann MLA said: “The last time the PAC looked into the issue of legal aid payments we strongly recommended that the Department of Justice and Legal Services Agency urgently implement reforms to the legal aid system and to establish effective financial controls over its cost.
“What we have found in this inquiry is that these reforms have not been implemented effectively and the costs of legal aid have continued to climb. We are seeing average annual costs of £102 million per year since 2011—this is simply unacceptable.[i]
“We are also concerned that the Department has failed to implement a statutory registration scheme for legal services providers, the absence of which means that the legal aid system lacks a basic mechanism to ensure quality of service and to deliver accountability and transparency in the use of public money.”
The Committee was also concerned that non-criminal legal aid has not been reformed to date resulting in excessive costs being incurred year after year due to a complex mix of statutory and non-statutory fees with few paid at a standard rate.
Mr Swann said, “The Committee is not convinced that the Department has conducted a serious examination of the potential benefits that could be derived from contracting with providers for publicly funded legal aid in Northern Ireland. The Department needs to seriously examine whether contracting these services would both save money while maintaining the rights of those accessing the justice system.”
Another issue identified by the Committee was that little progress has been made in updating the Legal Services Agency’s information systems since the original PAC report in 2011. This, together with an under-resourced fraud unit, have left the Agency and the Department with the possibility of being overexposed and without the means to ensure that monies are spent appropriately.
Mr Swann concluded: “One of the most frustrating part of this inquiry process is the Committee finding that assurances given in 2011 have not yet been met. The Agency has stated that the first phase of a new digitised management information system will not be fully in place by 2018”.
“For example, initiating pro-active counter fraud arrangements was a key recommendation in the Committee’s 2011 report. Despite this, there has been little substantive improvement. This has resulted in the C&AG qualifying the Agency’s accounts consistently over the years, something that is clearly unacceptable.
“Throughout this inquiry and report we have found that the long standing issues stem from a failure to drive forward much needed reform. We believe that there is a clear need for the Accounting Officer to instigate a capability review of the Agency’s leadership team, including the Department’s sponsorship arrangements, to ensure that it is adequately resourced and has the necessary skills, experience and culture to deliver a major change programme.”
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[i] At the time of the PAC’s previous report (2011), the total cost of criminal and non-criminal legal aid was £97 million (2009-10).