Belfast Telegraph

Lawyers slammed as they threaten legal aid strike

By Connla Young & By Claire McNeilly

Solicitors in Northern Ireland have been slammed after they revealed they are poised to withdraw their services from major criminal trials in a row over legal aid fees.

The accusation comes a day after the implementation of new rules slashing payments for defence solicitors involved in Crown Court criminal cases, sparking fears the legal system could grind to a halt.

Under the new framework, solicitors here can expect to earn £3,075 over three days — representing a reduction of £1,025 on the previous fee of £4,100.

However, Justice Minister David Ford said the payment remains “more generous” than the £1,300 earned by solicitors in England and Wales during an average three-day trial.

David McNarry, who sits on the Justice Committee, said it was time to accept the new rules for ‘Very High Cost Cases’.

“Barristers and lawyers have been paid well and they have been paid back and it’s time to move on,” he said.

DUP MLA Jeffrey Donaldson said he did not want to see ordinary people disadvantaged by not having access to legal aid “simply because lawyers want to increase their fees and take a bigger chunk of the legal aid budget”.

He added: “People will wonder if this has more to do with greed than need — or justice.”

Last month Justice Minister David Ford said enhanced rates paid out in ‘Very High Cost Cases’ were to come to an end.

Just this week the Belfast Telegraph revealed that almost £4m has been paid from the public purse to defend 13 people convicted of murder in Northern Ireland last year.

During a hearing at Belfast Magistrates Court yesterday, defence solicitor Eoghan McKenna told District Judge Fiona Bagnall he was withdrawing from the case of a man charged with rioting and throwing a petrol bomb.

The solicitor last night said the move came in a bid to help people charged with serious offences get a fair trial. Because barristers receive their instructions from solicitors, it means people facing High Court charges will be unrepresented. Defence solicitors say cutting legal fees will mean their clients will not be properly represented.

Fees to solicitors in standard cases are to be reduced by 25% under changes in the legal aid for crown court proceedings (costs) (amendment) rules.

Barristers’ rates will also drop by 20% as part of the changes.

Mr McKenna said solicitors have taken the step reluctantly.

He said: “Each solicitor will have to make an individual decision as to what they do but we would hope other solicitors will do what happened today. It is a reluctant step and nobody wanted this to happen but there’s very little option as nobody would listen to reason.

“We believe that these cuts are too much, too quickly.”

Mr Ford has defended the change to the legal aid rules. He said pay for defence solicitors remains “more generous” than for their counterparts in England and Wales.

Fees paid to a solicitor during an average three-day trial in England and Wales would result in a payment of £1,300. Before the new rules were introduced to Northern Ireland yesterday, a solicitor could have expected to earn £4,100 for the same work. Under the new framework solicitors can still expect to pocket £3,075 over three days.

“That level of public expenditure cannot continue unchecked and the Legal Aid bill must be subject to the same value for money challenges as other public expenditure. The new fees for Northern Ireland have been the subject of intensive discussions with the legal profession and full public consultation.”

President of the Law Society of Northern Ireland, Brian Speers, said solicitors were urged by the organisation last month not to undertake work if the “proposed level of remuneration is insufficient to enable him or her to conduct the work to the proper standard”.

A spokesperson for the Bar Council last night said the cuts will cause “irreparable damage to the criminal justice system”.

The spokesperson added: “The Bar warned against the implications of making cuts beyond the allocated budget for criminal legal aid, as had been agreed between Gordon Brown and the Northern Ireland Executive at Hillsborough.

“The Bar acknowledges the well founded concerns of solicitors that these rules will give rise to a two tier system of justice.

“The introduction of today’s rules will have a marked effect on the quality of representation provided to the public in the most serious trials in the Crown Court

Background

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

Last month Justice Minister David Ford outlined plans to cut legal aid payments made to defence solicitors, which came into force yesterday.

Defence solicitors say the cuts will mean their clients will not get a fair trial as they will not be able to match the resources of the prosecution in defending their client.

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