Legal aid bill up €760k to €48m

The amount in fees paid out last year to lawyers through criminal legal aid payments increased by €760,000 to €47.78m, in spite of a drop in the number of legal aid certificates issued.

According to figures provided by Justice Minister Alan Shatter to Clare Daly TD, criminal legal aid payments to solicitors and barristers last year totalled €47.78m, and this followed €47.02m paid out in 2012 — representing an increase of 1.6%.

Mr Shatter said solicitors in the criminal legal aid scheme last year received fees of €29.68m, with senior counsel getting €6.5m and junior counsel €11.5m.

Mr Shatter confirmed that lawyers have seen a 26% cut in fees since March 2009 — the fees have remained the same since the final 10% decrease in Oct 2011.

The figures show that the 26% more than reversed the cumulative 20% increase in fees between July 2004 and Mar 2008.

Yesterday, director general of the Law Society, Ken Murphy said that criminal legal aid fees “are at a level bordering on uneconomical for a lot of legal firms”.

He said: “The reductions that practitioners have suffered have been savage and have caused huge pain to lawyers.”

Mr Murphy said that the increase in 2013 criminal legal aid payments “is slight as to be of no real significance. The increase is due to an increase in sittings and prosecutions brought by the State over which practitioners have no control of”.

He said “political promises have been made to others that when the economy improves, public service salaries will be restored and I would expect in better times the legal aid cuts in rates to lawyers must be reversed. It will and must happen.”

Mr Murphy said “legal aid practitioners are the ‘thinnest cats’ in the legal profession and they provide a very important service that society should be proud of.”

He said the fees are not paid to individuals, but to firms where staff and other costs must be paid for.

A spokesman for the Department of Justice said yesterday: “The complexity of the criminal legal aid system, which is demand-driven, makes it difficult to control costs. The expenditure in any given year is determined by the number of cases where a criminal legal aid certificate is granted and the nature of the cases. Each case is different, for example, some cases last for one day whereas others can run for significantly longer.

“In addition, the nature of a charge and the court in which a case is heard determines the fee to be paid. It is worth noting that while the expenditure in 2013 was greater than that in 2012, the number of legal aid certificates granted in 2013 was less than 2012. In 2013, 46,092 certificates were granted compared to 49,639 certificates in 2012.”

Legal earnings

* Alan Shatter, the justice minister, confirmed to Clare Daly TD that the brief fee for senior counsel is currently €7,127 for a murder trial in the Central Criminal Court and €1,562 for each subsequent day after the first day.

* Senior counsel receive a brief fee of €1,716 in the circuit court with a subsequent daily fee or refresher fee after the first day of €858.

* Junior counsel receive a brief fee of €4,752 for a murder trial at the Central Criminal Court along with a refresher or daily fee of €1,041, while junior counsel receive a brief fee of €1,144 in the circuit court along with a refresher or daily fee of €572.

* Solicitors receive a brief fee of €7,127 for a case in the Central Criminal Court along with a refresher fee of €750 for each subsequent day while solicitors receive a brief fee of €1,144 for cases in the circuit court along with a refresher fee of €418.

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