Page last updated at 18:17 GMT, Thursday, 24 February 2011

Justice Committee

Fees paid by the government to Northern Ireland solicitors are double those paid to their counterparts in England and Wales MLAs were told, on 24 February 2011.

The figures emerged during a meeting of the justice committee in which officials briefed members on the department's reaction to joint proposals on defence counsel fees from the Northern Ireland Bar and the Law Society.

Departmental official Robert Crawford said solicitors' fees were 100.8% more generous than in England in Wales whilst fees paid to barristers were 23% more generous.

Mr Crawford said that the justice department had challenged 39 fees claims recently and 33 of these were subsequently dropped.

Conall McDevitt of the SDLP suggested the justice department was getting an "easy ride" from the draft budget and that it was expecting these professional bodies to demonstrate a greater level of efficiency than the department itself was prepared to show.

Earlier, the committee had discussed the definition of the term 'sectarian' in the section of the Justice Bill dealing with chanting at sports matches.

The previous day, the assembly had voted to reject the minister's proposed definition.

Some members expressed concern at the lack of a clear definition and committee chair Lord Morrow suggested that they could play a useful role in coming up with an agreed definition.

He also suggested that the call in the bills clerk to explain the legal aspects of the situation.

John O'Dowd of Sinn Féin said the committee had already agreed a definition and doubted its ability to reach a new agreement.

The SDLP's Conall McDevitt said that if the bill remained unchanged it would leave the definition of the term 'sectarian' to the courts.

The bills clerk later arrived to answer questions from the committee.

She said it was usual to provide a definition of a term that had not been defined in law.

It would be left to the courts to make a decision and, "there would be no clear steer as to what the assembly intended".

The clerk suggested that the committee might want to draw the definition of sectarianism tighter.

The committee also took evidence from departmental officials on proposed alterations to the rights of sex offenders contained within the Justice Bill.

Justice committee membership

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