Barristers have withdrawn their services from another serious Crown Court case, indicating that no end is in sight to the long-running dispute over cuts in legal aid fees.
Members of the Justice Committee have warned that a resolution between the Northern Ireland Court Service and the Bar Council must be agreed as soon as possible before there is major disruption to the justice process in serious criminal cases.
Yesterday at Antrim Crown Court, sitting in Belfast, defence barristers for a man accused of murdering his former girlfriend 15 years ago told Mr Justice Hart they would no longer be working on the case.
Defence lawyer Barry Gibson said it was “with regret” that he and his senior counsel, Patrick Lyttle QC, were returning their papers to instructing solicitor Owen McKenna in line with the attitude taken to Very High Cost Cases (VHCC) by the Bar Council.
With no barristers now working on the case, Mr McKenna had to represent William Mawhinney at his arraignment in the Crown Court yesterday, during which the 50-year-old pleaded not guilty to murdering Lorraine Mills on May 28, 1995.
Mr Justice Hart listed the case for trial in November and said he hoped the situation would be resolved by then.
This is the latest case to be thrown into uncertainty because of the dispute between lawyers and the Court Service over cuts to legal aid payments to barristers in VHCC. The current dispute centres predominantly around the introduction of new payment levels made in VHCC which can require a high level of skill and expertise.
In recent weeks lawyers have returned their briefs in numerous cases.
Justice Committee member Alban Maginness said it is essential that the matter is resolved quickly.
Bar Council members are to meet with Justice Minister David Ford in a bid to end the ongoing dispute.
Earlier this week Mr Ford insisted he would press ahead with plans to cut millions of pounds from the legal aid bill, which is expected to reach £94m this year.
He said that barristers involved in legal aid work had to be more realistic about their charges.
The Bar Council, however, warned that cuts could damage the criminal justice system and “just remuneration is essential” to a fair and accessible system.
The legal aid bill for Northern Ireland this year is expected to be £94m. In a bid to reduce expenditure, which is around 20% more here per head of population than in England and Wales, the Court Service has proposed cuts to payments made to lawyers in some cases.
Barristers are unhappy with the proposals saying they could damage the delivery of justice, and some have withdrawn their services.