Court system faces shutdown in strike over legal aid cuts
Members of Northern Ireland's legal profession are planning mass strike action which could potentially shut down the court system.
Judges, solicitors and barristers are furious at fresh proposals by Justice Minister David Ford to overhaul the legal aid and court system in a bid to make multi-million pound savings in his budget.
Causing the greatest discontent is a proposal by the minister to subject publicly funded legal aid payments to a new levy of up to 15%. This means that 15% of all earnings made by lawyers through legal aid work would not be paid.
Lawyers are also concerned that the minister could impose the levy on earnings from previous years.
Northern Ireland has one of the highest legal aid bills per head in the world and Mr Ford said that it was essential to curb expenditure to ensure public safety by preventing cuts elsewhere, such as frontline policing. His department is wrestling with a £75m reduction to expenditure across the justice system.
As well as the 15% levy, the number of courts in Northern Ireland are to be cut from 20 to eight, and changes have also been made to legal aid eligibility in the civil courts.
Members of the legal profession held crisis meetings yesterday.
Pearse MacDermott of the Solicitors Criminal Bar Association warned that some firms may stop legal aid work altogether.
"These proposals have been a shock so it is early stages, but a number of meetings will take place over the next week with the Law Society and Bar Council to discuss our response," he said.
"From a criminal legal aid perspective, this is coming on top of cuts to payments by 54% and now this is a further 15%.
"It could lead to a situation where a number of firms feel it is no longer feasible to take on legal aid work. We see this as an attack on the legal system in its entirety, by taking away access to courts in physical terms and financial terms."
It has been warned that fresh strike action could be on an even greater scale than that held in 2011 and see courts closed.
One lawyer warned: "The anger out there cannot be underestimated. It has come completely out of the blue. Our response will be much greater than before and could result in courts shutting completely."
Law Society president Arleen Elliott said: "Many solicitor practices must be considering if it is economically viable for them to continue to provide legal aid services to the community."
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In 2011 the Justice Department was forced to draw up a list of legal firms willing to take on legal aid cases after most practices withdrew from criminal cases because of pay cuts brought in by the minister. The unofficial strike action caused major problems to the Crown Court for several months until an agreement was reached between the legal profession and Justice Department.