Belfast Telegraph

Bullying claims as legal row gets nasty

Intimidation claims as row hits a new low

By Deborah McAleese

The legal dispute which has crippled Northern Ireland's courts system is turning increasingly toxic with solicitors who are willing to break ranks and work under new pay rates branded as "scabs".

And the Belfast Telegraph can reveal that a solicitor who publicly declared that he would take cases under David Ford's controversial new legal aid payments has now withdrawn his services from criminal cases amid allegations of bullying and intimidation.

More than 200 crime suspects have been left without Crown Court legal representation after their solicitors withdrew from their case in protest at fees cuts of more than 50%.

Antrim-based practice DG Bell Solicitors - who on Thursday became the first firm to appear in court on behalf of a crime suspect affected by the dispute - has now removed its name from the list of legal firms willing to work for the reduced fees.

The firm's owner Gary Bell would not comment on his reasons for the overnight U-turn, but his decision comes amid concern that some lawyers are feeling too intimidated to take up the unrepresented cases.

During his firm's first criminal case of the dispute last week, concern was raised by a Public Prosecution Service (PPS) barrister over how the defence was being handled, placing the firm under intense scrutiny.

As an indication of how increasingly hostile the dispute has become, one solicitor who was prepared to break ranks received an abusive email from a member of the legal profession calling him a "scab".

The Law Society said it has not received any complaints or suggestions of intimidation.

And Pearse MacDermott of the Solicitors Criminal Bar Association said: " We are shocked to hear that there are allegations of my colleagues feeling too intimidated to appear in new cases.

"The decision as to whether to appear in the Crown Court for the new fees is an entirely individual decision for each solicitor, which must be based on a view as to whether or not they can represent their client fully and ensure a fair trial for that client.

"I cannot believe that any solicitor would feel intimidated, nor should they. I have not seen any evidence of any behaviour that would make a colleague feel intimidated and I have concerns as to the source of these allegations.

"We repeat that any decision on accepting instructions by a solicitor, is an individual decision based on that solicitor's views of their client's rights and should in no way be influenced by colleagues or by Court Service holding out the prospect of guaranteed work to that solicitor."

However, a source within the Justice Department said there is concern that bullying tactics are being used to pressurise practitioners into not taking on the cases.

"We know pressure is being put on firms and practitioners. The legal profession is saying this is not a strike and yet many members are expecting all practitioners not to take up work under the new Crown Court fees. If there is any indication that someone may be prepared to do the work they are made to feel as though they are breaking the picket line," the source said.

The withdrawal from new Crown Court cases by DG Bell Solicitors, who just two weeks ago publicly declared a willingness to work for the new pay rates, will come as a blow to David Ford who has been attempting to gather a group of solicitors and barristers prepared to act for unrepresented defendants. Although Mr Bell said he did not want to comment about his decision a friend said that he had been left "shell shocked" by the level of hostile opposition from colleagues.

"He knew there would be opposition but did not expect it to be so hostile. There was a nasty whispering campaign from the start to try and discredit him. It also was pretty nasty in court on Thursday for the solicitor and counsel who appeared from the firm. The intense scrutiny became too much. It is going to be very difficult for any practitioner to accept work in such a hostile climate," the friend said.

A total of 80 legal firms have come off record in serious Crown Court cases, leaving 212 defendants unrepresented since the dispute began.

The new Crown Court legal aid pay rates amount to cuts in solicitors' fees of more than 50%. Solicitors say the level of cuts mean they are unable to represent crime suspects properly.

Attempts by the Justice Minister to assemble a group of legal practitioners willing to defend unrepresented suspects has so far only resulted in around 18 legal firms out of 500 responding positively. Members of the legal profession say this is an indictment of the concern over Mr Ford's cuts of criminal legal aid and a clear indication of support for the action they are taking.

The majority of barristers are also in support of solicitors and have refused to accept a case from a solicitor who has broken ranks. The Justice minister has written to barristers within and outside Northern Ireland asking if they will do the work.

BACKGROUND

The dispute between the legal profession and David Ford over the Justice minister's new legal aid pay rates has entered its second month. More than 200 crime suspects have now been left without any legal representation after their solicitors withdrew from their case, saying the cuts have left them unable to properly represent their client. The new fees mean that solicitors will take a pay cut of more than 50% in serious Crown Court cases. A total of 80 legal firms have so far withdrawn their services from these cases. In a bid to break the deadlock the Justice minister has begun to assemble a list of those willing to break ranks. The list will be provided to unrepresented defendants today.

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