Belfast Telegraph

Legal 'chaos' warning as solicitors drop 134 cases

By Adrian Rutherford

The stand-off over legal aid which is threatening to paralyse Northern Ireland's justice system, could lead to cases collapsing and suspects walking free, it has been claimed.

The warning came after it emerged that solicitors had withdrawn their services from 134 criminal cases in a six-week period.

Lord Morrow, who obtained the figures following an Assembly question, said the justice system was facing an "unprecedented" situation.

He voiced fears that the dispute will create a crippling backlog, which could lead to cases falling apart.

"I am very fearful - it is a real concern that we could find ourselves in a situation where this dispute leads to cases collapsing," he said. "This has the potential to cause chaos."

Dozens of solicitors' firms are refusing to work on criminal cases because they will not accept new lower rates of pay introduced in March.

The lower fees have been proposed by Justice Minister David Ford in an effort to slash Northern Ireland's huge annual legal aid bill.

Yesterday, it emerged that in the six weeks to the end of May, solicitors had withdrawn their services in 134 cases.

This included 53 in the Belfast court division, 23 in the Ards area and a further 15 in the Craigavon region.

Describing the current stand-off as "unprecedented", Lord Morrow called on Mr Ford to spell out how he plans to break the impasse.

"This is an extremely worrying situation and it is time for the minister to outline exactly what he intends doing to prevent the judicial system here from reaching breaking point," he added.

"The justice system is in a bad enough state, and if this dispute continues to escalate it will further clog up the system and cause real chaos."

Mr Ford has already signalled he may be forced to approach lawyers in England and the Republic to work here.

Yesterday, he confirmed solicitors and barristers in Northern Ireland have been contacted to determine which are prepared to carry out the normal range of legal aid work under the new rates.

Mr Ford added that, as some said they would not do this, he had to see if it was necessary "to go outside Northern Ireland to bring in other lawyers".

"What I am determined to do is to see the courts function and people obtain access to justice," he added.

Background

Yesterday, David Ford gave a geographical breakdown of cases which have been through a preliminary inquiry at a Magistrate's Court and where solicitors had come off record between April 13 and May 27. Belfast had the highest number of cases at 53, followed by Ards (23), Craigavon (15), Armagh and South Down (13), Fermanagh and Tyrone (12), Londonderry (12) and Antrim (6).

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