Belfast Telegraph

Controversial cuts to legal aid fees could be reversed

By Claire McNielly

New rules slashing legal aid fees for defence solicitors involved in major criminal trials could be revoked in a few weeks, it has emerged.

The revelation comes after members of the Stormont justice committee indicated that it can reverse the decision to cut payouts once the Assembly reconvenes.

Local lawyers have threatened to stop working over the reduced fees which were introduced two days ago, sparking fears the legal system could grind to a halt.

Under the new framework, solicitors here can expect to earn £3,075 over three days — representing a reduction of £1,025 on the previous fee of £4,100.

However, Justice Minister David Ford said the payment remains “more generous” than the £1,300 in England and Wales during an average three-day trial.

SDLP MLA Alban Maginness, a civil barrister who sits on the justice committee, said members were unhappy with the lack of discussion on the issue.

He said the new fees might only remain on a temporary basis if objections are made when the Assembly returns on May 12. “I think the minister has acted very unwisely in slipping them through at the end of the Assembly session. It is up to the new justice committee and the new Assembly to review these regulations, and if they pray against them they will cease to operate — and that could happen in a matter of weeks,” he said.

This week the Belfast Telegraph revealed that almost £4m has been paid from the public purse to defend 13 people convicted of murder in the province last year.

David McNarry, a UUP justice committee member, said it was time to accept the new rules for ‘Very High Cost Cases’.

“Barristers and lawyers have been paid well and they have been paid back and it’s time to move on,” he said.

A joint proposal was put forward by the Bar Council and Law Society to reduce the legal aid bill within the terms of the Justice Department’s target budget. However, that was rejected in February.

Chairman of the Bar Council Adrian Coulton QC said the need to reduce the legal aid budget was widely accepted.

“We came up with a scheme within budget in conjunction with the Law Society but that was|rejected. Now we have a situation where regulations have been |enforced with the potential that they can soon be reversed,” |he said.

Mr Maginness also said there was still confusion over figures being used by the department for regional comparisons.

“Everybody agrees fees should be reduced, but they should be reasonable and fair and permit ordinary people to have access to justice,” he added.

In response, Mr Ford said his determination to proceed was driven by the need to make savings of £1.5m per month.

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