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Justice in state of limbo as legal aid row delays cases

By Deborah McAleese

Published 25/01/2016

Justice Minister David Ford said the Bar Council of Northern Ireland has resolved to stop talking with his department
Justice Minister David Ford said the Bar Council of Northern Ireland has resolved to stop talking with his department

Striking lawyers are refusing to engage with the Department of Justice to resolve the bitter pay dispute that has stalled hundreds of criminal court cases.

Justice Minister David Ford said the Bar Council of Northern Ireland has resolved to stop talking with his department.

He said this has made it impossible for his department to carry forward proposals to address certain issues of concern.

Barristers withdrew from cases in May last year in protest against reduced legal aid payments. The Bar Council said the cuts meant barristers would not get any money for parts of their work.

A number of solicitors' firms have since joined in the strike action.

Judicial review proceedings were launched by the Bar Council and Law Society last year. The High Court refused to quash the rules for legal aid fees. The outcome of an appeal against the decision is due this week.

Almost 600 criminal cases have been directly affected by the legal aid dispute. Mr Ford said there was "little doubt that the action by the Criminal Bar Association and some firms of solicitors is having an adverse impact on the administration of justice".

He added: "Since barristers first commenced their action in May 2015, my officials, on my instruction, have sought to engage with them in order to resolve the issue.

"I have also met with representatives of the Bar of Northern Ireland and the Law Society to explore with them ways of meeting their concerns.

"However, the Bar of Northern Ireland have now passed a resolution not to engage with the department until, in their terms, 'the Department put forward reasonable and sensible proposals for consideration'."

Mr Ford said outline proposals were previously put forward by his officials to address certain issues of concern, "but these cannot be taken forward by the department in the absence of engagement".

He added there was no reason for them not to resume normal working pending the outcome of their appeal. "I encourage all members of the legal profession to re-engage in defending their clients to ensure that they receive the appropriate access to justice that they are entitled to," he said.

At least 10 brutal murder cases are among hundreds still waiting for justice.

DUP MLA Paul Givan said it was "outrageous" victims and families were affected: "Justice delayed is justice denied... it is unacceptable that families are having their day in court denied to them because of this dispute over pay."

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