The Ulster Unionist Party’s Justice Spokesperson, Doug Beattie MC MLA, has called for an external and independent root and branch investigation into Northern Ireland’s legal aid system.
Doug Beattie MC MLA said:
“The news that Gerry Adams received legal aid to fight against his conviction for trying to escape from the Maze, has brought into sharp focus the issue of legal aid in Northern Ireland. Particularly, just how and why someone with the expansive means of Gerry Adams – through book sales and pensions from Westminster, Stormont and the Dail, plus property owned - be entitled to legal aid, when so many victims are told they are not entitled to it?
“Quite incredibly, our legal aid bill here in Northern Ireland has been qualified since 2003. Yet since then very little has been done to forensically address the issue of a legal aid system that is by far the most generous in the whole of the UK. The will simply does not seem to be there, there is no appetite or ability to challenge the status quo that serves vested interests so well.
“The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report of 2017 was scathing of the Department of Justice’s attempts to get the legal aid bill under control by stating that some ‘basic mechanisms to ensure quality of service and to deliver accountability and transparency in the use of public money’ were absent.
“The simple truth is that since ‘Policing and Justice’ were devolved in 2010 we have never been able to balance our books. The accounts are qualified due to ‘Fraud and Error’ with eye watering amounts of money, including £5.9million of legal aid in 2019, being viewed by the Northern Ireland Comptroller and Auditor General as being irregular. And yet nothing is said or done.
“It is time that the Justice Minister addressed these issues, especially ‘Fraud and Error’ in our legal aid bill.
“Access to justice is important and supporting a legal aid system that ensures this access is available, must be at the heart of that access to justice. But it is now time that that there was an external, root and branch, forensic examination of our legal aid system with clear markers in order to address these very obvious and substantial failings. Crucially, such an investigation must be prepared to take on the vested interests who are served so well and provided for so generously by the status quo.“