Page last updated at 15:47 GMT, Wednesday, 21 September 2011 16:47 UK

Public Accounts Committee

The system for managing criminal legal aid had become unfit for purpose, MLAs were told, on 21 September 2011.

The public accounts committee (PAC) was taking evidence from public officials on the audit office report on criminal legal aid.

Committee chair Paul Maskey of Sinn Fein asked the first witness whether or not he agreed that the system was broken and needed fixing.

Nick Perry of the department of justice (DOJ) accepted that costs had been running at acceptable levels but said they had made major strides in tackling the problem.

Mr Perry said standard fees now applied in all magistrates' courts cases and that very high cost cases (VHCCs) had been done away with.

He said the issue of legal aid had been the minister's top priority since the devolution of justice powers.

David Lavery of the courts and tribunal service said that as of April 2011 all cases in the crown court would be on a standard basis or fixed fee.

Mr Maskey commented that he had heard the system referred to as "the most expensive in the world".

In explaining the current legal aid system the officials made repeated references to "the taxing master".

Alex Easton of the DUP asked who the taxing master was as he seemed to be some kind of mythical figure, or "will o' the wisp".

David Lavery explained that the taxing master was a judge whose specialist role was to assess the value of legal work.

Mitchel McLaughlin of Sinn Fein wanted to know about payments made for VHCCs. These were payable for cases that were expected to come to trial and last more than 25 days.

Paul Andrews of the legal services commission said the problem was that this was an entirely subjective judgement.

Mr McLaughlin pointed out that Mr Andrews had a very direct responsibility for legal aid policy during the period in question.

He said that only one in ten of the VHCCs actually fulfilled the criteria of coming to trial and lasting more than 25 days.

"I do not demur from the opinion that the test proved to be unsatisfactory," Mr Andrews commented.



Public Accounts Committee membership









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