Suspects in serious criminal cases are now having to prepare their own defence as the legal dispute between solicitors and the Justice Department escalates.
The Belfast Telegraph has learned that the Public Prosecution Service and the Court Service have advised that files be sent directly to defendants if their solicitor comes off record in protest at the new legal aid pay structure introduced by Justice Minister David Ford.
President of the Law Society for Northern Ireland, Brian Speers, warned that such a move raises fundamental issues over access to fair trial and human rights.
“Maybe they are left with no alternative, but it seems to me that for defendants to be confronted with their own paperwork, where they have no resources, no training and maybe limited abilities to know how best to present the case, cannot be satisfactory,” Mr Speers said.
Almost every court in Northern Ireland has been affected by the dispute with lawyers handing back files as soon as a defendant's case reaches Crown Court stage. They say the new pay structure makes proper preparation for cases impossible.
However, Mr Ford has said he cannot afford to pay the legal profession the fees that they want.
There are a number of major criminal cases pending — including several terrorist cases — that could be affected unless an agreement is reached between solicitors and the Justice Department.
The Prison Service is also becoming increasingly concerned that the dispute is going to lead to chronic overcrowding due to delays in cases for remand prisoners. Mr Speers warned that the fallout from the dispute is likely to escalate unless the Justice Minister renegotiates the new rules, which solicitors say represent an |average total pay cut of more than 50%.
“This is a huge cut. It is not surprising that some solicitors are deciding that the fee available is not a fee that is sufficient to enable them to work to a correct standard,” he said.
Mr Speers added that criminal solicitors were willing to accept their share of any public sector cuts and had made a proposal to the minister, but it was rejected.
“We felt that a position could have been achieved which had the backing of the Law Society and the Bar and we are very disappointed that, not withstanding the fact there was an agreement available, that the minister decided to press ahead and publish the new rules with the new fees.
“There has been disruption as a result. We think this issue will have momentum, it will have an escalating effect as time passes. The disruption will be unfortunate but was unavoidable.
“We are becoming increasingly concerned for the justice system. There was an opportunity to reason, and this should be a day one priority for the Minister of Justice.”
The Department of Justice has said, however, that the minister made significant changes to his proposals at the request of the professional bodies, but that he cannot pay the fees they want him to.
The Northern Ireland Court Service has confirmed that 36 solicitors' firms in Northern Ireland have come off record in cases involving 60 defendants in the past three weeks.
A spokeswoman said there had been a total of 129 cases relating to 195 defendants being committed for Crown Court trial during the period between April 13 and May 3.
Spending on Crown Court legal aid has more than tripled over the past decade, rising from £13.7m in 200/01 to £44.7m in 2009/10. Justice Minister David Ford (right) said this level of public expenditure cannot continue and has introduced new rules cutting solicitors’ fees on standard legal aid cases by 25%. Lawyers have said this level of reduction is unworkable and are now withdrawing from new Crown Court cases in protest.