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Backtracking solicitors leave minister facing court chaos

Almost half of the solicitors’ firms to break ranks in the legal dispute have withdrawn their co-operation to take on cases just days after agreeing to work for controversial new fees, it can be revealed.

Justice Minister David Ford had hoped the firms would help smash the deadlock in the courts system, which arose after solicitors refused to represent suspects in the Crown Court for reduced pay rates.

On Monday a list of 18 legal firms agreeing to work for the controversial new fees introduced by the Justice Minister was provided to suspects who have been left without any |legal representation. Last night, however, the number of firms on the list had dropped to 10 with Fergusons Solicitors, John F Gibbons & Co Solicitors, Kappa Solicitors and S G Murphy Solicitors the latest practices to withdraw.

None of the firms have explained their reasons for the U-turn. It is believed that many of the practices have been struggling to find a barrister willing to take up a case.

The majority of barristers in Northern Ireland have refused to accept cases from solicitors who have broken ranks. Although the Courts Service has written to around 20 barristers in England asking if they would be willing to carry out some work in the province, so far none has agreed to assist any of the firms on the list.

Some members of the legal profession have said that the firms are withdrawing their support because they face the prospect of having to defend the cases alone without any barrister.

The diminishing level of support will cause problems for the Justice Minister as he had hoped the Courts Service would be able to start clearing some of the large backlog of cases.

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Around 240 crime suspects are currently facing the prospect of having to defend themselves at trial because they have been unable to find any legal representation.

“This situation needs resolved urgently before it gets completely out of control,” said Stormont justice committee chairman Paul Givan.

Committee vice-chair Raymond McCartney added: “A basic tenet of democracy is the entitlement of citizens to proper and affordable legal representation when facing a court of law.”

What now?

As the legal dispute enters day 66 with no resolution in sight, David Ford is going to have to consider his contingency plans. If lawyers cannot be found to represent crime suspects the minister may be forced to approach solicitors firms in England to see if he can entice them into practising in Northern Ireland. Another option is the establishment of a public defender service.

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