Lawyers were paid a total of ?18.4 million for defending six people in a fraud case, the Department for Constitutional Affairs disclosed yesterday.

The case, which involved software privacy, was the most expensive criminal legal aid case of the past financial year. It led to prison sentences of up to two and a half years.

Three of the QCs involved in the lengthy case, named as James Sturman, Timothy King and Michael Grieve, were each paid at least ?450,000.

One of the solicitors' firms involved received ?5.8 million in fees and expenses.

Harriet Harman, QC, a minister of state at the department, said the fees were assessed and paid after the case had concluded under arrangements that have now been abolished.

In long and complex cases lawyers are now paid only for work agreed in advance - enabling more effective control of costs. Further reforms are in prospect.

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