Justice Minister David Ford pushed ahead with a new legal aid payment scheme despite warnings it would lead to a dispute that could cripple the justice system, the Law Society has said.
As the number of crime suspects finding themselves without legal representation continues to increase because of the messy pay dispute, president of the Law Society Brian Speers said there is an urgent need for the Justice Minister to enter into talks with the legal profession to try and salvage the situation.
Legal firms say the cuts introduced by the minister equate to more than a 50% reduction and they therefore 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.
Attempting to break the stalemate, Mr Speers said that if the minister enters into dialogue with the Law Society he is confident that a resolution could be made.
Mr Speers added: "The minister has taken the decision with regard to the fees that are in force. Prior to that decision the Law Society, and myself personally, advised him that on information we had obtained from senior experienced practitioners who knew what was involved in the conduct of Crown Court cases, that they had expressed real misgivings that the fees proposed were sufficient to enable them to take on the work and do what was required."
The minister is due to meet representatives of the Law Society and Bar Council in the next week to discuss other issues. Mr Speers said he hopes the minister will give them the opportunity to discuss the current dispute.
Spending on Crown Court legal aid has more than tripled over the past decade, rising from £13.7m in 2000/01 to £44.7m in 2009/10. Justice Minister David Ford has cut solicitors' fees on standard legal aid cases by over 25%, saying the current level of public expenditure cannot go on. Lawyers have said the level of reduction is unworkable and have begun withdrawing from new Crown Court cases in protest at the minister's decision.