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Lawyers' dispute has caused backlog of 800 court cases, says David Ford

Published 25/01/2016

Justice Minister David Ford has urged barristers to resume taking new legal aid cases in order to clear the backlog
Justice Minister David Ford has urged barristers to resume taking new legal aid cases in order to clear the backlog

Around 800 legal cases are waiting to go to the Crown Court because of industrial action by lawyers, the justice minister said.

Last year barristers in Northern Ireland withdrew from all new criminal cases requiring legal aid in protest against new rules reducing the level of payments from the state. The most serious cases are heard in the Crown Court but the protest by lawyers has created a blockage in the flow of hearings.

Legal proceedings aimed at resolving the dispute are due this week.

Justice Minister David Ford said a plan was in place to deal with the backlog once lawyers returned to work.

He added: "Those who talk about their concerns for vulnerable witnesses, for those who had offences committed against them and in some cases for vulnerable defendants have an obligation to carry out their work."

He said payments would be backdated once a solution was found, meaning those in dispute could return to work now.

Mr Ford has said the new rules are fair and essential. He claimed legal aid in Northern Ireland remained significantly more generous than payments in Great Britain.

The Criminal Bar Association, which represents barristers, has said the highest standards of representation cannot be achieved under the amended rules.

Gavan Duffy QC, chairman of Criminal Bar Association stated: "The minister is mistaken in his view - as self-employed individuals, prosecuting and defence barristers are not obliged to undertake cases; we accept briefs based on our ability to serve justice, protect the vulnerable and guarantee fairness for all. The present fee scheme prevents us from doing so.

"The reality we face is that with these latest reductions, the fees proposed are now half of what was paid 10 years ago.

"In effect, the department has rendered it impossible for prosecuting and defence counsel to properly serve victims, defendants and the public.

"Our position remains the same, counsel operating in the most difficult and complex trials, should be paid a professional fee for the level of work and preparation required.

"We have witnessed the utter degradation of the justice system in England and Wales, as evidenced by the judiciary, Westminster, victims' groups, the media and lawyers alike. We will not participate in the downfall of the justice system in Northern Ireland.

"The present situation is untenable in the long term for all involved including defendants, victims and the justice system as a whole. The Criminal Bar Association stands ready and willing to engage, provided the Department has a realistic resolution to offer. We have yet to see any evidence of this."

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