Lawyers consider mediation in bid to resolve Northern Ireland legal aid dispute
Lawyers and the Department of Justice are to consider mediation in a bid to end the bitter pay dispute that has caused a huge backlog in criminal trials, it has emerged.
Both sides confirmed in court yesterday they were prepared to explore the possibility of entering into the process aimed at resolving the stand-off.
A planned appeal against a failed attempt to have new rules for legal aid fees in Northern Ireland quashed was adjourned for 24 hours to see if mediation is possible.
Barristers began to withdraw from cases last year in protest at the reduced payments within reforms by Justice Minister David Ford.
Some solicitors' firms have also joined in the industrial action.
The ongoing dispute has stalled around 800 cases waiting to go to the Crown Court.
Judicial review proceedings were launched by the Bar Council and the Law Society in a joint challenge to the new fees.
In November last year a High Court judge held that the new rules do not provide fair pay to defence solicitors in some criminal cases.
He also identified a breach in the impact assessment carried out as part of the reforms.
But despite declaring the decision-making process unlawful in two areas, he declined to quash the rules.
An appeal against his verdict was set to begin yesterday in front of three senior judges in Belfast.
But Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan disclosed that the mediation has been suggested to the parties.
Sitting in the Court of Appeal, he said they would be given time to discuss the possibility. Counsel for legal professions and the Department both confirmed they were prepared to explore the option.
Karen Quinlivan QC, for the Bar Council and Law Society, said they would welcome the opportunity to see if it may be a way of achieving a resolution to the dispute.
"My understanding is that all the parties are willing to see if this can go forward," she said.
Ms Quinlivan stressed, however, that any such process may be limited to the issue of fees. Legal arguments could still be necessary about the overall lawfulness of the rules. Tony McGleenan QC, representing the Department of Justice, was equally open to engaging in mediation "without precondition".
Checks are now to be carried out on who is available to oversee such a process, and what terms would be involved, before any commitment is given.
Sir Declan agreed to adjourn the appeal hearing until today for time to explore the options.
He added: "A skilled mediator may be able to assist in various different ways in trying to see whether a sensible accommodation can be reached."