Top judge appeals for a swift end to legal aid deadlock
One of Northern Ireland's top Law Lords has appealed for a resolution in the continuing legal aid fees dispute involving defence lawyers and the authorities.
Lord Justice Weir was told that even if the Criminal Bar Association settled its current dispute with the Department of Justice, it was unclear if their similar row with the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) could be resolved.
It was, said Lord Justice Weir, "a rather unsettling piece of news".
It is understood a backlog of more than 1,000 criminal cases, from murder to drink driving, has grown since the start of the dispute, which followed a decision in May by Justice Minister David Ford to reduce defence fees, and a similar move by DPP Barra McGrory on prosecution fees in August of this year.
However, while defence lawyers have "come off record" and no longer represent former clients in court, it was also revealed yesterday that many prosecution barristers still appear "as a matter of courtesy" to the courts.
At the start of his review of criminal cases at Belfast Crown Court, Lord Justice Weir said that while he and other judges "know nothing about" the defence counsels' dispute, he would "like to appeal to all parties to this disagreement to do their very best to bring the matter to an early conclusion".
The senior Law Lord said this was necessary "in everyone's interest so the Crown courts may quickly resume the effective dispatch of their important business, which this ongoing disagreement is significantly disrupting".
Lord Justice Weir added the dispute had resulted in "a growing backlog" in cases, and that "defendants charged with what are often serious offences are unable to access the expert legal advice they require".
It was only afterwards that the senior judge learned of a similar dispute involving counsel from the Public Prosecution Service.
Lord Justice Weir had enquired if any further background preparatory work could be undertaken by prosecution lawyers which might expedite the hearing of cases once the legal aid fees disagreement was resolved.
Afterwards, several prosecution lawyers reported that their governing body, the Criminal Bar Association, was also disputing the new fees scale as set out by the DPP.
"This is the first I have heard of this," said Lord Justice Weir.