Fees paid under the State’s criminal-legal aid system rose by more than 11.5 per cent last year, with almost €65 million paid out to solicitors and barristers in 2018.
The average fees paid to one of the top 10 earning solicitors’ firms, including VAT, came to €473,417 in 2018, while the 10 best paid senior counsels received an average of €415,385 each under the scheme.
For junior counsels, the top 10 earners received average payments of €223,991, again inclusive of VAT.
The Department of Justice, which released the figures, said the increase in fees paid out “indicates the extent of the challenges associated with controlling expenditure on criminal legal aid”.
A spokesman said: “The complexity of the criminal legal aid system, which is demand driven, makes it difficult to control costs and deliver on cost reductions.”
The department said it was working on new laws that would introduce “a more rigorous and objective means-testing system for criminal legal aid, provision for contributions, and new sanctions”.
The draft Criminal Justice (Legal Aid) Bill would transfer the administration of the scheme to the Legal Aid Board and give effect to commitments made in the Programme for Government to improve the legal aid system, the spokesman said.
However, lawyers are set to resist any move to alter the grounds on which criminal legal aid is given. The reforms should be approached “with caution”, the Law Library warned. A spokeswoman told The Irish Times it was not possible to estimate savings that would be achieved by means testing, “and indeed it is likely that the costs of administering such a scheme would very significantly outweigh the reduction in cost”.
“Furthermore, it could have the significant damaging side effect of delaying the criminal proceedings themselves…with knock-on delays affecting witnesses, victims and the effective administration of justice,” the spokeswoman said.
She added that restricting access could drive up incidences of defendants representing themselves, resulting in “lengthy and difficult proceedings, ultimately increasing costs to the State and causing consequent distress to witnesses and victims of crime”.
A 2018 spending review of the legal aid scheme by the department found it was “cost effective and robust, facilitating a high standard but low cost representation of defendants through skilled advocates engaged by the State,” the spokeswoman added.
Both the Bar Council and the Law Society said the higher bill to the State was caused by increased workload, not fees, which had been cut during the recession. A spokeswoman for the Law Society said: “The resilience and integrity of the criminal legal aid system is being threatened due to long-standing and continued reductions in rates.”
Two solicitors firms earned more than €500,000 in criminal legal-aid payments last year. Michael Staines & Co was paid €654,512 for work, which would have included the trial of former chief executive of Anglo Irish Bank David Drumm. Brendan Grehan , who acted as Mr Drumm’s senior counsel during the trial, was paid €607,678 in criminal legal aid last year. A second senior counsel who acted for Mr Drumm, Bernard Condon, was paid €553,135.
One of the junior counsel who acted for Mr Drumm, Tessa White, was paid just over €250,000 in criminal-aid fees last year.
The second-best paid solicitor’s firm on the list was that of Tony Collier , who formerly worked with Michael Staines & Co. Mr Collier’s firm was paid €522,197 last year.