Improvements to the use of Legal Services required within the justice system


Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland has called for action to improve how legal services are currently provided in a new report published today (Tuesday 28 June 2011).

The inspection has found that the criminal justice system spends around £100 million on legal services each year with the majority of expenditure relating to the prosecution and defence of criminal cases.

“This inspection has identified a number of areas where current practice could be enhanced which would generate better value for money across the justice system,” said Dr Michael Maguire, Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland.
“Inspectors found that the purchase of legal services from the private sector was governed by a range of different fee schemes and arrangements, which lack transparency and make it difficult to predict overall costs,” he said.
The Chief Inspector indicated that many justice organisations were unaware of the costs involved until work was completed and that these costs could often exceed original estimates where they were provided.
The report states that standard procurement arrangements are increasingly used to secure the services of solicitors for civil work within the justice system.  However arrangements for the procurement of barristers for criminal and civil cases by the justice organisations were different, with no competitive public tendering taking place. 
“These practices are generally considered unacceptable in other commercial environments where the supplier of a service would be expected to provide an estimate of the cost of service provision in advance of work being undertaken.  They would also be expected to justify and explain any variances from these estimates,” said Dr Maguire.
“I can see no reason why this discipline which is used in other areas of public expenditure, should not apply to the provision of legal services” he continued.
The inspection report also highlights the difference in payments made to defence and prosecution counsel.
Information made available to CJI has shown that in 2008, defence counsel in Northern Ireland were paid 29% more than prosecution counsel across a sample of cases. 
This disparity is based on the use of two separate legal fee schemes – one which is operated by the PPS and the other by the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS)/Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission (NILSC).
“This disparity puts the PPS at a disadvantage when seeking to instruct counsel.   The impact of the different fee arrangements is exacerbated by the significantly greater availability of two counsel for the conduct of defence cases compared to the prosecution and the higher than expected number of legal aid cases which attracted uplifts to the standard fees,” said the Chief Inspector. 
In light of this, Inspectors have recommended that the NICTS and the PPS need to develop a common approach for achieving convergence between the level of prosecution and legal aid fees, which would maximise value for money and ensure Departments operate within budget.