Belfast Telegraph

Courts back on track as legal aid deadlock resolved

By David Young

A long-running dispute over legal aid which had brought business in many of Northern Ireland's criminal courts to a virtual standstill has been resolved.

Solicitors and barristers have been refusing to represent clients in hundreds of cases for months in protest at planned cuts to the legal aid budget.

Negotiations between the Bar Council, Law Society and Stormont's Department of Justice have now produced a settlement.

Full details of the deal have not been revealed, but proposed new rules around legal aid payments are set to be presented to Stormont's justice committee and the Assembly in the near future.

Barristers withdrew from cases in May last year in protest at reduced legal aid payments.

The Bar Council said the cuts meant barristers would not get any money for parts of their work.

A number of solicitors' firms joined in the strike action.

Yesterday's agreement was announced in a joint statement by the Law Society, Bar Council and the Department of Justice.

It said: "All parties have worked to achieve this outcome in the interests of ensuring the continued effective and efficient operation of the criminal justice system in this jurisdiction.

"These arrangements will ensure the immediate restoration of representation for defendants in the Crown Court in Northern Ireland."

Barristers and solicitors are set to resume work on legal aid cases today.

Last month it was reported that 545 cases were in a backlog due to the legal aid dispute.

At the time Justice Minister David Ford highlighted the impact on victims, defendants and witnesses saying it was "unacceptable".

"I encourage all members of the legal profession to re-engage in defending their clients to ensure that they receive the appropriate access to justice that they are entitled to," he said.

But last night the Justice Minister was in a more upbeat mood: "I would like to thank all those involved in the mediation process for their energy in reaching a resolution.

"The immediate return to representation for defendants will allow the justice system to continue in an effective and efficient manner," he said.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph last night, Danny Kennedy MLA, the Ulster Unionist Party's justice spokesman, said: "This is a very welcome development.

"I am pleased that this long-running dispute has finally been resolved."

Belfast Telegraph

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