Five Dublin-based solicitors' firms received over €1m each through the criminal legal aid scheme last year as payments to barristers and solicitors increased by €4.2m to €57.2m.
The 8.5pc rise in payments to the highest ever amount in 2009 comes in spite of two government cuts reducing legal aid fees to lawyers by over 10pc in 2009.
The figures, released by the Department of Justice yesterday, show that, last year, the total amount paid to solicitors under the criminal legal aid scheme increased by 11pc from €33.35m to €37.1m, while payments to barristers increased by 2pc from €19.65m to €20.1m.
For the first time, five solicitors' firms received in excess of €1m; while the barrister leading the defence case in the Eamonn Lillis murder trial, Brendan Grehan, received €393,140, the second highest amount among 597 barristers in the scheme.
A contributory factor behind the sharp rise in legal aid payments to solicitors was the amount of solicitors joining the scheme last year. Department of Justice figures show there were an additional 108 solicitors participating in the scheme in 2009, bringing the total to 871.
In response to the continuing rise, a spokeswoman for Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said yesterday that he was "extremely concerned at the accelerating cost of criminal legal aid" and had directed that legislation be brought forward to deal with the issue.
The spokeswoman said the upcoming legal aid bill would include provisions that would trigger a compulsory means test in cases where the garda/DPP objected to the granting of legal aid; require those with some means to make a contribution towards the cost of their defence; give the court power to withdraw a legal aid certificate in certain circumstances; substantially increase the penalties for fraud; and restrict power to grant additional counsel to the trial court.
Fine Gael justice spokesman Charlie Flanagan said that a rigorous examination of a defendant's means at pre-trial stage needed to be carried out before any legal aid was granted.
The figures reveal that solicitor Michael J Staines received the highest amount, at €1.34m, with John M Quinn, Yvonne Bambury and Cahir O'Higgins each getting €1.1m.
The fifth solicitor to receive over €1m was Michael Hanohoe, while the solicitor who received the sixth-highest amount was Cork-based Frank Buttimer, who received €982,062.
A further seven solicitors' practices received in excess of €500,000. Outspoken Limerick-based solicitor John Devane, who received €433,603, was one of 16 to receive between €250,000 and €500,000.
Sixty-five solicitors received between €100,000 and €250,000 last year -- which compares to 30 solicitors being in the same earning bracket in 2007.
The top earners among both solicitors and barristers continue to be male. In the top 20 earners among solicitors, only three were women, while only one woman features in the top 20 earning barristers.
The figures in relation to barristers show that Padraig Dwyer was the only barrister to receive in excess of €400,000, with three colleagues, including Mr Grehan, receiving in excess of €350,000.
Mr Grehan received a sizeable portion of his legal aid income from his work in defending Ronald McManus, who last year received a life sentence for the manslaughter of Melissa Mahon following a 25-day trial.
The figures show that another nine barristers received payments in excess of €200,000.