The Department of Justice and Minister David Ford must provide effective legal aid to a convicted prisoner left without a barrister because of new payment rates, a High Court judge has ordered.
Mr Justice Treacy directed all necessary steps should be taken to ensure Raymond Brownlee is properly represented at sentencing next month.
Even though he has been found guilty of wounding with intent, threatening to kill and falsely imprisoning a woman, the case against him could have been halted because no barrister was prepared to act for him for the fixed fees available.
Rates of £240 and £120 on offer for senior and junior counsel to carry out the work were turned down by all lawyers approached. The amended rules for fees in serious criminal cases were introduced in 2011.
After a judicial review challenge by Brownlee, the court held last month that the rules were inflexible. With the department set to appeal that judgment, no steps have been taken to alter legal aid entitlements in his case.
Ruling yesterday on the issue of remedies, Mr Justice Treacy pointed out that it was unlawful for a public authority to act in a way incompatible with Brownlee's right to a fair trail.
He said: “I'm persuaded that in this case it is just and appropriate to grant an order of mandamus compelling the respondent to take all necessary steps to make the applicant's right to legal aid effective, and I so order.”
Brownlee, from Belfast but currently in HMP Maghaberry, was found guilty at Belfast Crown Court last year.
Towards the end of the trial he was left with no legal representation when his lawyers came off record after a breakdown in their relationship.
Mr Justice Treacy also stated: “It's not in the public interest that the legal aid scheme should lead to a rejection of instructions in this case by competent and experienced counsel.”
Brownlee is also pressing ahead with a claim for damages after winning his case.
Outside the court his solicitor Louise Moley said the ruling had highlighted a potential injustice.
She said: “I'm optimistic that if the Department complies with the order made today he will be able to access and secure the representation required for his sentencing hearing.
“That's all we have ever sought.”
Story so far
In 2011, lawyers across Northern Ireland launched unofficial strike action and refused to take on new cases after Justice Minister David Ford cut their pay in criminal cases. The controversial move was designed to save the public purse £18.5m a year. Then, earlier this year, he set his sights on civil case pay for lawyers which he also hopes to slash significantly. Legal aid expenditure in Northern Ireland costs almost £60 per person, compared to £38 in England and Wales and £32 in Scotland. In the Republic of Ireland the cost per person is around £20.