Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Talks 'end legal aid stand-off'

Justice Minister David Ford

Talks between lawyers and the Department of Justice appear to have brokered a deal to end the stand-off over legal aid payments.

While the negotiations are continuing, the Law Society said it expects solicitors who had withdrawn their services to resume work.

Justice Minister David Ford introduced lower fees earlier this year to cut the annual legal aid bill that had stretched to more than £100 million.

Dozens of solicitors' firms had refused to represent clients in criminal cases after the lower rates were introduced and claimed the changes would threaten their work, as well as the fair operation of the justice system.

But following a stand-off, during which it was claimed lawyers from England could be drafted in to carry out the work, it emerged that talks on finding agreement had secured a breakthrough.

The legal profession's representative bodies said sufficient progress had been made to secure a return to work.

President of the Law Society Brian Speers said: "The Law Society has always maintained that a resolution to the ongoing dispute could only be found through proactive engagement and constructive dialogue involving all parties.

"We are pleased that the discussions to date have been positive and we are hopeful that members will begin returning to work soon. The Law Society remains committed to supporting the ongoing discussions and to continuing to work constructively to building confidence in the administration of justice in Northern Ireland".

Alliance Justice spokesman Stewart Dickson paid tribute to the work of Mr Ford and officials from the Court Service in bringing an end to the dispute. He said Mr Ford had been "resolute" on the issue.

Adrian Colton QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said colleagues accepted the need for change in hard financial times, but defended the right to raise serious concerns about the outworking of the Department of Justice proposals.

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