Belfast Telegraph

Dark heart of legal dispute revealed

By Deborah McAleese

The dark tactics at the heart of Northern Ireland’s legal dispute that has crippled the province’s courts system are today laid bare.

A solicitor who agreed to break ranks and work for reduced legal aid fees has spoken out for the first time about how he believes fellow lawyers launched a smear campaign to discredit him and force him not to take up Crown Court cases affected by the dispute.

Gary Bell, from legal firm DG Bell, yesterday lodged complaints with David Ford and the Law Society claiming he had been a victim of slurs ever since he publicly declared that he would take cases under the new legal aid payment scheme.

More than 200 crime suspects have been left without legal representation after their solicitors withdrew from their cases in protest at reductions in the Crown Court fees.

A total of 83 Northern Ireland law firms have withdrawn their services, saying they cannot properly represent clients under the new rates, which amount to a reduction of more than 50% in solicitors’ fees in serious Crown Court cases.

Eighteen out of 500 legal firms have agreed to work for the new rates.

Although Gary Bell’s firm initially agreed to work for the new fees, he withdrew his agreement amid allegations of bullying and intimidation.

The Department of Justice said the correspondence received by the minister yesterday from Mr Bell about alleged attempts to discredit him “raises a number of concerns”.

A spokesman added that the minister is interested to see the response from the Law Society to the points raised by Mr Bell.

As the bitter dispute rumbles into its 64th day without any sign of resolution, the Belfast Telegraph received a number of anonymous phone calls from people claiming to be from the legal profession accusing the paper of “siding with those crossing the picket line” because of our coverage of the wrangle.

The angry complaints came after the paper revealed the increasingly toxic atmosphere the dispute is creating, not just between practitioners and the Justice Department, but also within legal circles.

It emerged earlier this week that solicitors who are willing to break ranks and work under the new pay rates have been branded “scabs”.

The legal firms who have agreed to take on the work have also come under intense scrutiny from fellow members of the legal profession.

The firms have been accused by protesting practitioners of not being experienced enough to provide quality representation in serious criminal Crown Court cases.

One experienced criminal solicitor in Belfast, who has withdrawn from cases, said: “Few of them have any real, extensive criminal experience. It’s a farce.”

Concern has been raised in the Assembly that lawyers who would be prepared to work under the new rates are too intimidated to take on the cases because of the level of ill-feeling against those breaking ranks.

However lawyers involved in the dispute deny that bullying tactics are being used to discourage any solicitors or barristers from taking up the cases.

“If they want to take on the cases then let them. But what they are doing is very dirty. They know that many firms are facing having to make staff redundant or take |reduced hours because of these pay cuts and yet they are supporting the cuts,” one solicitor said.

Background

For two months members of the legal profession and David Ford have been at loggerheads over controversial new legal aid fees for Crown Court cases. Solicitors say they cannot afford to properly represent defendants under the new rates, which in some cases amount to pay cuts of more than 50%. Over 200 crime suspects have been left without legal representation

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