Prisoner in dock tells judge of growing fears over legal aid fees row
Crime suspects who have been left without legal representation
A pisoner has spoken out in public for the first time about the effect the ongoing dispute between lawyers and Justice Minister David Ford is having.
More than 70 legal firms have withdrawn their services in protest at the minister's cuts in legal aid fees.
The messy pay dispute has left upwards of crime suspects without legal representation.
Legal firms say the cuts introduced by the minister equate to more than a 50% reduction and they cannot afford to properly represent clients in the Crown Court.
Mr Ford said he does not have the money to pay solicitors what they want.
The issue was raised at the Crown Court in Londonderry yesterday, when a remand prisoner said the row was having a detrimental impact on prisoners.
Patrick Fullerton (44), from Lisneal in the Waterside area of the city, was due to have been arraigned on drugs charges before Judge Piers Grant.
The defendant is charged with possessing a Class A drug designed for administering by injection and with possessing diazepam.
He's alleged to have committed the offences on February 4 of last year.
As the arraignment was due to take place, a prosecution barrister told Judge Grant that the defendant was not legally represented, following the withdrawal from the case by his solicitor due to the dispute.
The defendant then asked Judge Grant for permission to address the court on the issue from the dock.
"I have been advised by my previous solicitors that they are not willing to work under the new rules," he said.
"I have discussed this situation with other remand prisoners and they have been told the same by their solicitors.
"The prisoners are all very worried by this.
"I am a remand prisoner and do not have the money to allow me to phone firms to see if they will work for me.
"I have heard some names but I do not know them and I do not want to be forced to pick a solicitor who does not have any experience and who will mess up my case," he said.
In reply, Judge Grant told the defendant that because of the serious nature of the charges he should have legal representation.
He adjourned the case until June 28 and told the defendant to provide details of his case to the Law Society and to make "strenuous efforts" to obtain legal representation by that date.
Justice Minister David Ford has introduced new rules governing solicitors' fees in legal aid cases. The rules, which came into force on April 13, cut fees in standard legal aid cases by 25%. Solicitors have claimed this figure represents a 54% pay cut for their Crown Court services. Lawyers across the province have said the reduction is unworkable and are withdrawing from Crown Court cases in protest. The refusal to work has affected criminal cases right across Northern Ireland. Mr Ford has said he plans to bring in lawyers from England and the Republic if the deadlock over fees cannot be resolved.