Belfast Telegraph

Lawyers call halt in legal aid row

Some lawyers in Northern Ireland are to stop working on serious criminal cases in a dispute over cuts to the legal aid budget.

Justice Minister David Ford wants to save millions of pounds from new measures which solicitor Eoghan McKenna said would amount to a 25% reduction in fees for ordinary cases.

Over the past decade, spending on Crown Court legal aid has more than tripled, rising from almost £14 million in 2000/01 to nearly £45 million in 2009/10.

Mr McKenna argued that the changes left him unable to prepare Crown Court cases properly and said many other solicitors support his stance.

"This is just a step too far, it is too bloodthirsty and too drastic," he said.

He said lawyers are prepared to accept some reductions, of around a tenth in normal fees, but that the cuts brought in go too far.

Mr McKenna added: "We believe that these cuts are too much, too quickly. As a result the inevitable consequence is that there are insufficient resources to fund people's defences and they cannot receive a fair trial, particularly against the resources of the prosecution service, and of the police and the agencies against a suspect."

Under rules set out by Mr Ford, enhanced rates paid out in very high cost cases are to end. Fees to solicitors in standard cases reduced by 25% under changes in the Legal Aid for Crown Court Proceedings (Costs) (Amendment) Rules. Barristers' rates also drop by 20% as part of the changes.

Despite this, for a case solicitors would still receive around £3,075, compared to £1,200 in England and Wales.

Law Society president Brian Speers said: "The Council of the Law Society notes the duty on all solicitors not to take any action which compromises or impairs, or is likely to compromise or impair his/her proper standard of work, as required by professional conduct rules. Where a solicitor is of the view that the proposed level of remuneration is insufficient to enable him or her to conduct the work to the proper standard he/she should not accept instructions in that matter."

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