Belfast Telegraph

Crunch meetings to resolve legal row

Criminal lawyers are being given a final chance to get back to work before the Justice Minister gathers a team of public defenders to take on their Crown Court cases.

Crunch meetings between the legal profession and officials from the Justice Department have been taking place this week in a last ditch attempt to resolve the legal pay dispute before the new Crown Court term in just three weeks' time.

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 David Ford over new legal aid pay rates. Now entering its fourth month, Mr Ford is hoping to end the deadlock and convince the legal profession to work for the reduced fees before the new Crown Court term commences and suspects are faced with no choice but to represent themselves at trial.

However, the Belfast Telegraph understands that the legal profession is resolute, with lawyers saying they "absolutely cannot offer a fair justice and proper defence" under the new payment scheme introduced by the minister in April in a bid to slash the cost of publicly-funded legal aid.

A senior legal source said: "There is no change in the legal profession's position in relation to the action being taken."

Unless there is a last-minute breakthrough in the hostile dispute, Mr Ford will be left with no option but to give the Legal Services Commission the go-ahead to directly recruit a team of lawyers to defend unrepresented suspects. It is understood he will launch his contingency plan within the next week if necessary.

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Currently in Northern Ireland private lawyers represent suspects in the courts, claiming their fees through publicly-funded legal aid. A public defenders scheme would see a number of Government-paid lawyers represent defendants in Crown Court cases affected by the dispute.

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