Belfast Telegraph

Solicitor who broke ranks claims a ‘campaign is trying to discredit me’

By Deborah McAleese

A high-profile solicitor who broke ranks in the legal aid dispute said he withdrew his offer to work for reduced fees because of an alleged smear campaign against him.

Gary Bell, of Antrim law firm DG Bell, has lodged a complaint with the Law Society and David Ford claiming that attempts were made by a number of Northern Ireland lawyers to discredit him and force him not to take on any Crown Court cases.

He said the situation, which arose after he publicly declared that he would take cases under Mr Ford’s controversial new legal aid payments, has caused him considerable concern and distress.

“I believed they were seeking to discredit me,” he told the Belfast Telegraph. Mr Bell said that a “pack of lies” were being circulated about him after he spoke out against solicitors who were withdrawing from cases saying they could not afford to work under the Justice Minister’s new legal aid pay rates.

“My stated position was that I was concerned about persons who are on remand and do not have representation and that I believed I could still make a profit under the new legal aid rates,” he said.

Mr Bell added that he regarded the person or persons behind the smear campaign “with utter contempt”.

“It seemed clear to me that whoever was (behind this) had a clear agenda — namely to get me out of the Crown Court in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“It seemed to me difficult to fathom who would have an agenda like that other than someone who would have a financial interest in me staying out of the Crown Court.”

Mr Bell said the legal dispute has become deeply “emotive and divisive”. He added that it is in the best interests of the legal profession for the Law Society to encourage its members to reconsider working for the new reduced legal aid rates on a temporary basis of 12 months to see if they are workable, and not to seek a review of the rates for a year.

“The purpose of this would be to allow confidential negotiations to take place with the Department of Justice at that time in a less fevered atmosphere,” he said.

Mr Bell’s legal firm became the first practice to break ranks and take on a case affected by the dispute. Concern was raised in Newry Crown Court last week, however, over how the defence was being handled after it emerged that the suspect’s legal representatives had not read the case files.

DG Bell remains the only legal practice to appear in such a case, however 18 legal firms have since agreed to work under the new rates.

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