Legal aid system ‘undermined’ by failure to implement Stormont recommendations

The credibility of Northern Ireland’s legal aid system is being undermined by delays to planned reforms, a new report has found.

The Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) pointed out that the Department of Justice had not yet implemented recommendations made by the Northern Ireland Assembly’s public accounts committeenearly 18 months ago.

The committee’s report in January 2017 was critical of how the Legal Services Agency (LSA) had managed the legal aid budget over a number of years, and said previous assurances following a similar report in 2011 had not been kept.

Northern Ireland’s comptroller and auditor general Kieran Donnelly said: “The delays in implementing the recommendations of the Committee’s report undermine the credibility of the legal aid system.

“Nearly 18 months later the Department and the Agency have not taken action on all of the recommendations. I accept that there are significant constraints on the delivery of the recommendations in some areas without a Minister and a legislative Assembly. Nevertheless, I am disappointed by the slow progress being made.

“I will continue to monitor this and expect to see a substantial improvement in the pace and delivery of the legal aid reform.”

The LSA and the Department of Justice have “taken steps” to address some of the recommendations in the committee’s report.

Draft legislation has been prepared for the implementation of a Registration Scheme for legal aid providers, and new IT has also been developed to support the registration scheme. However, the legislation cannot be progressed further in the absence of an Assembly.

The LSA is also investing in a robust strategy to counter fraud and error, working initially with the Department for Communities to develop an estimate of the levels of fraud and error in the system.