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Legal aid dispute leaves over 600 without a lawyer in Northern Ireland

By Cate McCurry

Published 12/01/2016

More than 600 defendants have been left without a lawyer as the dispute over legal aid continues to cause chaos in the court system
More than 600 defendants have been left without a lawyer as the dispute over legal aid continues to cause chaos in the court system

More than 600 defendants have been left without a lawyer as the dispute over legal aid continues to cause chaos in the court system.

Hundreds more Crown Court cases are still in the early stages of the legal process as lawyers are continuing to refuse to take on new criminal cases in protest against cuts to their pay.

The stand-off has caused mayhem in the court system, with a growing backlog of cases as the dispute intensifies.

Lawyers have taken industrial action in response to the cuts, withdrawing professional services in criminal cases as part of the protest.

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

Judicial review proceedings were launched by the Bar Council and the Law Society and a legal challenge was heard in September last year.

A High Court judge found that the new rules for legal aid fees do not provide fair pay to defence solicitors in some criminal cases.

However, legal representatives launched an appeal after the High Court refused to quash the rules for legal aid fees.

The outcome of the appeal is expected to be heard later this month.

Latest figures reveal that there are currently 817 cases outstanding ranging from committal through to cases awaiting arraignment. Of these, 545 cases are directly affected by the legal aid dispute.

These cases include seven murder suspects and four accused of attempted murder.

Another 60 are accused of sex crimes, with 76 more accused of drug offences and 39 accused of fraud.

Bar Council Chairman, Gerry McAlinden QC, said the current situation was "deeply unfortunate".

"The resulting impact on victims awaiting justice is regrettable," he said.

"The Department of Justice must seek to remedy the present situation as soon as possible."

Justice Minister David Ford highlighted the impact on victims, defendants and witnesses saying it was "unacceptable".

"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.

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