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27 November 2008

Legal Aid Payments List Must Be Seen in the Proper Context

The Law Society of Northern Ireland has said that the publication by the Legal Services Commission, of the list of the top 100 legal aid payments to solicitors firms out of the legal aid fund, must be seen in the proper context.

The Law Society of Northern Ireland has said that the publication by the Legal Services Commission, of the list of the top 100 legal aid payments to solicitors' firms out of the legal aid fund, must be seen in the proper context.

The Society which represents the interests of solicitors in Northern Ireland has said that it is supportive of making information available regarding the expenditure of public funds and has always supported the publication of such information subject to the appropriate relevant issues being addressed.

Responding to the publication, the Society has said that whilst it welcomes the publication of the list, it is important and necessary to explain the list in the context of the value of legal aid and the work undertaken by solicitors' firms in Northern Ireland.

Legal aid exists to provide the most vulnerable and deprived members of the community with proper access to justice. Over 500 firms provide a legal aid service at over 70 different locations across Northern Ireland.

The Society points out that the headline figures, which represents turnover, are only part of a much bigger picture.

Solicitors' firms are small businesses and as such they have to finance their business costs which includes staff wages and national insurance contributions, professional fees and insurance, rent, rates, office supplies, utility bills, and other day to day overheads from their turnover.

In addition the published figures do not show the size of the solicitors' firms or the number of staff they employ. Nor do they reveal the volume of work or the number of people helped.

As the notes accompanying the published list indicate, the payment to solicitors' practices is often for work undertaken over several years involving complex cases. It is also important to note that payments are only authorised after careful scrutiny by the Legal Services Commission and the courts.

Commenting on the publication of the list, Mr Donald Eakin, Senior Vice President of the Law Society of Northern Ireland said:

It is worth remembering that legal aid protects the rights of people including the victims of domestic violence, children taken into care and people accused of crimes and those affected by accidents, to obtain legal advice and if required to present their case to the courts.

The Society agrees that it is clearly in the public interest that there is transparent accountability in relation to the expenditure of public funds.

However it is important that we put the list in the context of the very significant work and representation, which legal aid solicitors' firms undertake on behalf of their clients.

Invariably this work is demanding in terms of the time, staff and resources of the solicitors' firms. This is not evident from the list published by the Legal Services Commission nor is the level of professional commitment by legal aid solicitors who often work unsociable hours and in difficult and trying circumstances.

As an analysis of the figures show, the disbursements paid by solicitors' firms are frequently very substantial and involve experts from many fields.

Increasingly cases can take lengthy periods of time to conclude and it is the solicitors' firm which regularly bear the initial costs until legal aid payment is received.

Unfortunately the payment to solicitors for services provided has often been delayed for several years and this has meant that firms have effectively incurred the costs of progressing legal aid cases in addition to their own business overheads.

Whilst the Society acknowledges that work has begun to address this issue it is still concerned that ongoing delay will have an adverse affect on legal aid solicitors and the ability of the most vulnerable and deprived within our society to obtain legal aid and proper access to