Emergency plans to avert crisis in the courts are being finalised by the Justice Minister as just five Northern Ireland legal firms remain willing to defend crime suspects in new crown court cases.
Almost 400 suspects, many facing serious charges such as murder, rape and armed robbery, have been left without legal representation as lawyers across the province continue to refuse to take on their cases in a dispute with the Justice Minister over new legal aid pay rates.
With just over a month to go before the new Crown Court term begins in September, the three- month dispute is now at crisis point as the small number of legal practices prepared to work for reduced fees continues to diminish, while the number of unrepresented defendants increases almost daily.
The Belfast Telegraph has learned that urgent preparations are now underway to launch the justice minister's contingency plan to establish a public defenders' office.
Unless there is a last minute breakthrough, David Ford will give the go-ahead within the next few weeks for the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission to directly recruit lawyers to act in the unrepresented cases, ultimately transforming the way criminal defence is administered in Northern Ireland. Historically, criminal defence has been provided solely through the private sector, funded from the public purse.
The Law Society was informed earlier this week of the minister's decision to push ahead with his contingency plans, but has warned against such a move.
"This is presently being considered by the minister as an emergency stop-gap and I simply say that there is no need to have an emergency stop-gap because there is plenty of opportunity to deal with the current situation by constructive dialogue and discussion," the Society's president Brian Speers said.
Mr Speers warned that a public defenders system could lead to miscarriages of justice and a lack of confidence in the justice system.
But with just five solicitors' firms out of 500 willing to work for the reduced legal aid fees, which lawyers say represent pay cuts of over 50% in some cases, Mr Ford is under pressure to break the deadlock within the courts system. A total of 19 out of 500 firms contacted by Mr Ford's officials had initially included their name on a list of practices prepared to defend suspects for the new pay rates. The minister had hoped that number would increase, but within hours of the list being made available to defendants, firms began withdrawing their co-operation.
One solicitor, Gary Bell, from DG Bell Solicitors in Antrim, withdrew his co-operation just days after lodging a complaint with the Law Society, claiming there had been a smear campaign against him ever since he publicly declared that he was prepared to work for reduced fees.
Legal practices prepared to break ranks in the dispute have been unable to progress their cases after barristers across Northern Ireland refused to work with them.
Just four barristers, one of whom is from England, have told the Court Service they are prepared to take on cases.
The Belfast Telegraph has also learned that some solicitors are writing letters for their former clients to send to a legal practitioner willing to take up their case, questioning their experience and capabilities.
If the suspect is unhappy with the responses from the practitioner they are turning down the offer of representation. Lawyers have argued that suspects need to know that they can have confidence in their defence team.
"Why should a defendant not seek reassurances from a solicitor before employing their services? Someone accused of a serious crime has the right to expect the best defence possible," one solicitor said.
However, chairman of the Justice Committee, Paul Givan, said he believes this is an attempt by disputing lawyers to block any attempts by the Justice Ministerto resolve the situation in crown courts.
"The solicitors that specialise in criminal legal aid are indulging in protectionism, trying to protect the cartel that has been built up," he said. "They want to put people off coming onto their patch.
"As chairman of the justice committee I remain resolute that these new fees will not be changed and I am sure that the minister will continue to remain steadfast."
The DUP MLA added: "I do not think there is now any other option but to continue developing this contingency plan. The minister will know at which point to press the button and make it happen, but I'm sure that moment cannot be far off. I will support him completely."
A spokesman for the Justice Ministersaid that as part of his commitment to provide access to justice for both victims and defendants, Mr Ford met members of the Law Society this week to discuss the current dispute over the new criminal legal aid rates which were introduced in April.
The spokesman added: "The Minister re-iterated his offer of an early review of the effects of the new rates and further meetings are planned between Department officials and the Society.
"David Ford has already informed the Justice Committee that his Department is looking at alternative options to ensure access to justice if the dispute cannot be resolved soon."
Lawyers across Northern Ireland withdrew their services in new Crown Court cases in April after the Justice Minister introduced controversial legal aid pay rates for criminal cases. They are refusing to work for the reduced fees, leaving almost 400 crime suspects without any legal representation. If the dispute is not resolved before the new crown court term in September Mr Ford intends to establish a public defenders system to try and ensure suspects have a solicitor.