Radical reform needed to halt continuing increase
The Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland has called for radical reform of the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission (NILSC) in order to address spiralling legal aid costs and inefficiencies.
Brendan McGuigan said an inspection of corporate governance arrangements within the organisation published today (29 November 2013) had shown the NILSC had struggled with the management of the legal aid budget since it was established.
This is due to the fact the NILSC has no control over the granting of criminal legal aid - which is awarded by the judiciary - and only limited control over the granting of civil legal aid.
"In the10 years from 2002-03 to 2012-13, the annual legal aid bill has more than doubled to £94.5m. The NILSC has also failed to remain within budget for the last three financial years. In the current economic climate, this situation cannot be maintained and legal aid is becoming a facility we are struggling to afford," said Mr McGuigan.
"Current budgets allocated to criminal justice organisations funded by the Department of Justice (DoJ) are being cut in an effort to pay for the increasing costs and overspend on legal aid. With these cuts impacting on front line services, it is the view of this Inspectorate that the legal aid arrangements in Northern Ireland require radical reform," he said.
The Chief Inspector indicated there was a need to establish a framework for the granting of legal aid as the current structures inhibit the ability of the NILSC to forecast its expenditure with any level of accuracy.
"In this inspection report CJI has made one strategic recommendation which is central to addressing the problems which exist," said Mr McGuigan.
"Inspectors have called on the NILSC's sponsor department the DoJ to implement the recommendations contained in the 2011 Access to Justice review which would improve the governance of the organisation in line with Cabinet Office principles around accountability, roles and responsibilities, effective financial management and communication.
"This must be coupled with reform of substantive law and associated processes," stated the Chief Inspector.
Mr McGuigan said that implementing this recommendation would provide a springboard from which the present ineffective administration systems could be addressed and other areas for improvement identified in the report taken forward.
They include standardising legal aid arrangements around the cost of expert witnesses, improving the clarity of business processes, the development of an electronic system for applying for legal aid and the prompt processing of legal aid payments.
"The NILSC, operating in its present format is unable to meet the expectations of oversight bodies including elected representatives in relation to the cost of legal aid due to its lack of control over the granting of legal aid and current legislative restrictions.
"The long term aim therefore should be to have in place a new legal aid body which has overall responsibility for the granting of all legal aid.
Mr McGuigan said he hoped the findings of the inspection report would help stimulate informed political and public debate around legal aid.
"There is a need to ensure a comprehensive discussion takes place on this issue so that in seeking to reduce the amount of public money spent on legal aid and gain greater budgetary control, the future requirements of society and the needs of individuals whose circumstances necessitate access to legal representation in the interest of justice, are maintained," concluded the Chief Inspector.