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'I did a law degree as a stepping stone to becoming a fighter pilot, but once I saw barristers in action I was hooked'

As a new TV series starts tonight about the work of barristers in NI, Mark Mulholland QC talks to Ivan Little about their pay and why they went on camera

Barristers in Northern Ireland haven't ruled out the possibility of strike action in line with their colleagues in England and Wales who've been staging a number of high-profile walkouts in protest at cuts in their fees, bringing courts across the water to a near standstill.

However, the chairman of the Bar Council of Northern Ireland has said it's hoped discussions with Justice Minister David Ford and his officials can resolve the outstanding problems here.

Mark Mulholland QC told the Belfast Telegraph: "I hope it doesn't come to a strike. But sometimes, unfortunately, desperate measures are called for in desperate times.

"I know In England they view this very much as trying to signal their grave concerns over just how significant the cuts have been in terms of ensuring that the public are properly represented."

Mr Mulholland added: "We have been working very hard with the Department of Justice and the minister in what we've called a collaborative approach, but you don't rule anything out."

Mr Mulholland was speaking ahead of tonight's broadcast of the first part of a BBC documentary series which gives an unprecedented insight into the work of barristers here.

Two years ago some barristers withdrew their services in a range of serious criminal proceedings in protest at cuts in legal aid fees.

Mr Mulholland said: "That has been resolved after a lot of talking with the Law Society, the Bar Council and the department.

"Lessons were learned by everyone in relation to that.

"On our part, we recognised there's a budget, and on the department and minister's part, they recognised and appreciated that they do need the best lawyers, and though they must get value for money it is important the public receives the proper level of representation."

But Mr Mulholland said more cuts were now being proposed right across the board here – in family law, criminal law and personal injury actions.

"For example, they are also proposing to cut judicial review fees significantly and do away with a lot of the opportunities that otherwise people would have to challenge Government decisions," he said. "They are prepared to cut the fees of the lawyers who would take the cases, but still keep the same level of fees for the barristers and solicitors who actually do the work for the Government."

The Bar Council chairman said the only losers would be the public because "it will make it difficult for the public, who can least afford the representation themselves, to be provided for in terms of experienced barristers to take their cases." There is, however, a perception that many barristers here are fat cat lawyers pocketing millions from their work in the courts, making it difficult for the legal practitioners to garner sympathy from the public.

Just three months ago figures released by the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission revealed the total payments from the legal aid fund were around £32m and almost £21m of that went to 100 barristers – one of whom received more than £1m

But Mr Mulholland said: "Very few barristers are earning that sort of money. It can take years, and it can be a struggle for younger barristers to keep at it."

He added: "You are always going to get, no matter the profession, the very best who will earn significant sums of money, but in the midst of all that the debate in Northern Ireland shouldn't necessarily be about the money. It should be about the rule of law and the interests of justice."

He said the emphasis for barristers was that the cases they took up for their clients were done professionally and to the best of their ability.

Trying to convey that message is one of the motivations behind the decision to embrace the media in an attempt to give the public an understanding of the justice system and how important a role barristers play.

The new five-part series Barristers was filmed over 15 months and features 14 barristers as they consult with and advise their clients in preparation for a wide variety of cases involving personal injuries, criminal cases, employment issues and family law.

The documentary reveals a huge rise in the number of cases in the latter aspect of the law, where court cases are never publicised because of the need for confidentiality of the children involved – some 7,700 of whom relied on the courts last year to sort out their living arrangements.

Barrister Orla McGahan has been involved in 1,700 family law cases during nine years at the bar. She tells the documentary that most people imagined that the worst thing that could happen in a court proceeding would be going to jail, but for parents losing their children would be even worse.

The documentary also shows how barristers' jobs aren't nine to five.

Frank O'Donoghue QC is seen working on a case at his home at 11.30pm after a full day in court in readiness for more proceedings the next day.

Mr Mulholland said: "It's all-consuming. During a bigger case you have to put your life on hold, sometimes for weeks at a time. I've had cancelled weekends, cancelled holidays, but it is a vocation.

"I know it sounds a bit corny but it's all about a strong sense of wanting to get justice for people. I did a law degree as a stepping stone to becoming a fighter pilot, but once I saw barristers in action in the courts I was hooked."

Northern Ireland has 720 barristers.

Between them and solicitors – whose differing roles are explained in the documentary – legal practitioners are involved in 90,000 cases here every year.

The documentary makers aim to show the public – the vast majority of whom never encounter a barrister in their lives – the human side of the profession beneath the wigs and gowns.

"This series reveals a world that many of us have never seen," said Kelda Crawford McCann, the producer/director of Barristers – which also goes behind the scenes for the first time into the inner sanctum of the Bar Library in Chichester Street, where barristers are based.

Cameras are banned from courts here but in a later episode, the documentary will follow one case from Northern Ireland to the Supreme Court in London, where filming is allowed.

Mr Mulholland said he believed the programme breaks important new ground.

"The public are entitled to be properly informed about the important and independent role we play in the justice system," he said.

It's a series which couldn't have been made at the height of the Troubles, when barristers were prosecuting and defending men and women charged with some of the most notorious atrocities in Northern Ireland.

Mr Mulholland said: "A lot of brave people, at their own personal cost, were prepared to take on the high-profile, difficult and demanding cases and arguing very unpopular views, and doing it impartially, objectively and professionally without fear or favour."

The age-old question for defence barristers, of course, has always been about how they can reconcile their consciences with representing people accused of heinous offences.

Mr Mulholland said: "I still get asked that all the time but I say I'm not there to judge if someone is guilty or innocent. That's a matter for the judge and jury."

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