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Londonderry Crown Court business hit by lawyers' legal aid action

Published 27/08/2015

Dozens of Londonderry cases were mentioned but adjourned until the autumn
Dozens of Londonderry cases were mentioned but adjourned until the autumn

Business in a Northern Ireland court came to a near standstill because of industrial action by lawyers.

Dozens of Londonderry cases were mentioned but adjourned until the autumn and the hearing was suspended within half an hour.

Defence legal representatives are refusing to take briefs in a row over cuts to state pay rates known as legal aid.

Among matters adjourned until October, awaiting a landmark legal challenge against the new fees regime by counsel, were those involving theft and handling stolen goods.

A total of 54 names were on the court list at Londonderry Crown Court, although many were duplicates.

Lawyer after lawyer stood up - to ask for an adjournment to October. One of KRW Law's lawyers was not in court as a client was mentioned.

Also on the list was Richard Caldwell, 46, from Bovevagh Road, Dungiven, accused of dishonestly failing to promptly notify the Social Security Agency of "a change of circumstances that you knew would affect your entitlement to Income Support, namely that you were working".

A Public Prosecution Service barrister told the court: "I understand that no counsel accepted briefs, other counsel returned papers."

In another case a court usher called for an instructing solicitor in the hall outside. "No response," he told the emptying courtroom.

Solicitors and barristers have been granted permission to take action to try to overturn planned cuts to the legal aid budget.

A judge granted the Law Society, which represents solicitors, and barristers' Bar Council leave to seek a judicial review of Justice Minister David Ford's rules.

The hearing is scheduled to take place next month. The largest solicitor's firm in Northern Ireland, KRW Law, was the first to withdraw from all major criminal cases in a protest against new rules reducing the level of payments. Another 20 companies have followed suit.

The Criminal Bar Association, which represents barristers, has said it is stepping aside from all new criminal cases.

Mr Ford, who is facing cuts to his departmental budget along with other Northern Ireland Executive ministers, introduced new rules reducing the legal aid payments available to lawyers who undertake criminal legal work.

Earlier this year he proposed a short-term plan of a levy on legal aid payments to lawyers and other changes to reduce the costs of legal aid to his department's budget.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice said it had a responsibility to ensure legal aid fees represent value for money.

She said: "Legal aid is demand-led and historically the available budget has not been sufficient to meet this demand. Current forecasts are that, despite additional funding being allocated by the department, there is still likely to be a gap of around £20 million this year."

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