Northern Ireland’s lawyers are waging war on Justice Minister David Ford as an escalating dispute over legal aid pay threatens to bring criminal cases across the province to a standstill.
Hundreds of solicitors are to withdraw their services from all new serious criminal cases — leaving defendants without legal representation and potentially causing chaos to the court system — unless the minister meets with the Law Society to renegotiate new rules, which solicitors claim slash their standard payments in legal aid cases by 25%.
Lawyers in Belfast have already withdrawn from the majority of cases entering the Crown Court system from last Wednesday, when the minister’s new legal-aid fee structure came into force.
Solicitors in a number of cases in Ballymena, Downpatrick, Larne and Londonderry have also withdrawn from cases.
Senior legal sources have told the Belfast Telegraph that unless Mr Ford changes his position — which they claim was rushed through in time for the election without proper consultation — a situation will rapidly develop “where no solicitor will be acting in any new case in any Crown Court in Northern Ireland”.
Members of the Law Society, which offered to make legal aid budget cuts of 15%, warned that the minister’s new system of fees will lead to a two-tier justice system where the rich will receive better representation.
A former member of the Assembly’s justice committee also accused the minister of “trying to pull a fast one” by “pushing” the new rules through on the last day of the administration.
Last night, however, Mr Ford was showing no signs of backing down, saying that he cannot afford to pay the legal profession the fees that they want.
A spokeswoman for Mr Ford said: “The minister has delayed implementation at the request of the professional bodies, and has made significant changes to his proposals at their request. But he has also made clear that he cannot pay them the fees they want him to or delay the implementation of these new rules any longer.
“Delay is causing overspends against the budget of £1.5m each month — money that the minister needs to maintain frontline policing, to improve community safety and to provide services for victims of crime.”
Mr Ford introduced the new rules last week saying that legal fees from the public purse must be subject to the same value-for-money challenges as other public expenditure.
However, members of the Law Society have accused Mr Ford of acting in “bad faith” by “pushing through with the new rules” before they could be voted on by the Assembly.
“There is no coincidence that this came at a time when the Assembly stopped sitting for the election. We believe the minister rushed this through without allowing for proper consideration,” a source said.
The source added that the legal profession accepts that cuts have to be made, but warned that the minister’s level of cuts will lead to cases not being properly prepared in the Crown Court and to defendants not being properly represented.
Former justice committee member, the SDLP’s Conall McDevitt, said the new rules have come into effect “by default” because they were “pushed through” by the minister before any objections could be raised that would have forced them onto the floor of the Assembly for a vote.
“What the Justice Minister has done is improper and in bad faith and there is no certainty these rules will be approved by the Assembly on its return,” he said.
The Northern Ireland Court Service said yesterday that only a “small number of solicitors’ firms have withdrawn from cases, but the majority have proceeded normally”.
A spokeswoman added: “Where a solicitor comes off record in any case, a defendant affected by such a withdrawal should contact another solicitors’ firm and invite them to take on his case.”
But a Law Society member told the Belfast Telegraph that objection over the new fees is so strong that no solicitor will take on another’s client in these cases.
Spending on Crown Court legal aid has more than tripled over the past decade, rising from £13.7m in 2000/01 to £44.7m in 2009/10. Justice Minister David Ford has said this level of public expenditure cannot continue and has introduced new rules cutting solicitors’ fees on standard legal aid cases by 25%. Members of the Law Society have said that this level of reduction is unworkable and are now withdrawing from new Crown Court cases in protest at the minister’s decision.