Belfast Telegraph

Probe is sought into bullying claims in bitter legal aid row

By Deborah McAleese

The Law Society has been asked to investigate allegations of bullying after concern was raised in the Assembly that lawyers who are prepared to break ranks over the legal aid fees dispute have been branded "scabs".

As unrepresented crime suspects were yesterday provided with a list of 18 legal practices willing to take on their cases for the reduced pay rates, concern was raised in the Assembly that other lawyers interested in coming on record were feeling too intimidated to break ranks.

Speaking in the Assembly, justice committee chairman Paul Givan demanded that the Law Society launch a probe into the allegations of intimidation, as revealed in yesterday's Belfast Telegraph.

David Ford (right) gathered the group of 18 legal firms after writing to 500 practices across Northern Ireland in a bid to smash the deadlock that is causing chaos in the courts system and has left 225 defendants without legal representation.

A total of 83 law firms have withdrawn from serious Crown Court cases, saying they cannot afford to properly represent clients under the new legal aid payment scheme, which amounts to cuts in solicitors' fees of more than 50% in some cases.

It is understood that two English law firms have also cited an interest in expanding into Northern Ireland and taking on the cases, but they have yet to receive approval from the Northern Ireland Law Society.

The firms were not approached by the Justice Department, but expressed their interest in operating in the province after hearing about the dispute through the media.

The increasingly bitter dispute is crippling the courts system, with almost 200 Crown Court cases having ground to a halt.

If the minister is unable to gather enough support from solicitors in Northern Ireland to clear the system, he has said he plans to contact firms from other parts of the UK.

He has already contacted more than 20 barristers from outside the province asking if they would be willing to take up the cases after local barristers refused to accept cases from solicitors who had broken ranks.

DUP MLA Paul Givan said: "This is turning into a very messy situation and I have called on the Law Society to urgently investigate these allegations of intimidation and bullying.

"No practitioner should feel too intimidated to take on these cases.

"It is very concerning to hear that practitioners who want to do this work are being called 'scabs.'"

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