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Victims suffering in legal aid row as it's revealed seven murder cases in backlog

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 04/12/2015

DUP peer Lord Morrow
DUP peer Lord Morrow

Seven murder suspects are among more than 600 defendants left without a lawyer because of a strike by barristers, it has emerged.

Lawyers are refusing to take on new cases in protest against cuts to their pay.

The stand-off has caused chaos in the court system, with a growing backlog of cases as the dispute intensifies.

Latest figures show 531 crown cases involving 629 defendants have been halted.

Campaigners said victims were suffering because of the stand-off.

Geraldine Hanna, from Victim Support NI, said: "The incessant legal aid dispute is causing additional stress and anxiety to victims, witnesses and their families."

Details of the case backlog were disclosed after an Assembly question from DUP MLA Lord Morrow.

The 629 defendants include seven murder suspects and four accused of attempted murder.

Another 60 are accused of sex crimes, with 76 more accused of drug offences and 39 accused of fraud.

Ms Hanna said the delays were putting victims' lives on hold.

"Preparing to give evidence is frightening and distressing enough for people without the further angst of going to court and having their case postponed due to a lack of legal representation," she added. "The human impact of this crisis is grave. People's lives are on hold as the courts come to a standstill with victims being the real casualties of this legal aid dispute.

"It is crucial that a speedy resolution is reached to end this dispute so that victims, witnesses, defendants and their families are granted their core fundamental right to justice."

Justice Minister David Ford introduced reforms to payments for criminal work in May.

With the minister facing a reduced departmental budget, he has maintained that Northern Ireland cannot continue to fund the UK's highest level of legal aid pay. But lawyers have taken industrial action in response to the cuts, withdrawing professional services in criminal cases as part of the protest.

Judicial review proceedings were launched by the Bar Council and the Law Society.

Last month a judge refused to quash the rules, despite declaring the decision-making process unlawful in two areas.

Lord Morrow voiced alarm at the growing backlog.

"The current situation cannot be allowed to continue," he said.

"The judicial system is gridlocked with some of the most serious cases stymied as a result of this action."

Lord Morrow questioned whether barristers who strike should face sanctions. "I find it very alarming that members of the legal profession, who are funded by the taxpayer in these 629 cases, are in a position to be allowed to halt an entire section of the judicial system in this way, yet face no sanction," he added.

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