Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

Lawyers call off strike: Concessions, but no U-turn from David Ford to end dispute

Criminal lawyers last night ended their bitter stand-off with the Justice Minister David Ford and have decided to go back to work.

After four months of dispute over reduced Crown Court fees, members of the legal profession met yesterday evening and agreed to take up their abandoned cases.

It is understood that David Ford had intended to launch a contingency plan on Monday which would have provided English law firms with the opportunity to compete for Crown Court work in Northern Ireland.

The plan was to introduce a system that is used in England where legal firms would have to apply for contracts from the Legal Services Commission to do criminal work.

There was concern among many of the smaller law firms that they would be unable to compete within such a system and therefore potentially be forced to close.

The Belfast Telegraph has learned that a handful of legal practices are unhappy with the decision to end the dispute and were last night still considering withdrawing from cases in protest at the new legal aid pay structure.

It is understood that Mr Ford has offered some concessions to lawyers in a bid to encourage them to end their dispute. These concessions do not include a U-turn over the new pay structure, but consist of an agreement by Mr Ford to relook at pay structures in some Magistrate Court cases and police station call-outs.

He has also agreed to review the new Crown Court pay rates after a period of time.

Almost 500 crime suspects, who are facing serious charges such as murder, rape and robbery, were left without legal representation after lawyers across Northern Ireland decided, in April, to withdraw from the cases in protest at new legal aid pay rates.

They said the new fee structure amounted to pay cuts of more than 50% in some cases. More than £300m has been spent on Northern Ireland's criminal legal aid bill from 2003 and Mr Ford has said he can no longer afford to pay lawyers the money they want.

A legal source told the Belfast Telegraph: "A lot of firms wanted to get back to work as they were losing clients.

"There has been concern that some of the smaller firms would be cleaned out if the contract system was brought in, so it looks like most are in agreement to take up cases again."

The source added: "It doesn't mean that the same concerns that led to the dispute have gone away."

Background

In April the Justice Minister introduced reductions to solicitors' legal aid pay, sparking a dispute which left almost 500 crime suspects without representation. Solicitors said the new fees amounted to cuts of over 50% in some cases and they could not afford to properly represent clients. But after talks with the Justice Department the dispute has ended.

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