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Deadlock in legal aid row

The first criminal case to secure a defence team amid a hostile legal dispute has come to a standstill after the suspect’s solicitor withdrew from the case.

Gary Bell, who was the first lawyer in Northern Ireland to publicly declare that he would be willing to defend crime suspects under controversial new legal aid fees, told a court yesterday that he would no longer be working on the case.

The move comes a week after the barrister in the case, Donal Farrell, withdrew his services.

Last week Mr Bell told the Belfast Telegraph that he had removed his name from a list of legal firms prepared to take on the work following claims of a smear campaign against him. At that stage he had not withdrawn from the case and had sought court permission for an adjournment to give him time to find another barrister.

However, yesterday at Newry Crown Court, Judge Kevin Finnegan gave permission for Mr Bell to withdraw after being told he had failed to secure new counsel.

Mr Bell said that, despite “strenuous efforts” to obtain the services of counsel, his office had failed to find any barrister willing to replace Mr Farrell and represent 22-year-old David Ian Peter McKenna.

The Antrim solicitor said that McKenna, of Newry Street, Markethill, wanted to make an application for bail, but since he was not represented by counsel, he was not in a position to make the application on his behalf.

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It was at this point that Mr Bell applied to the court “to come off record” in the case.

Judge Finnegan asked the solicitor if he wanted to withdraw from the case “altogether” and Mr Bell replied “yes”.

McKenna, who denies a total of eight charges including possession of a Class B drug, being concerned with its supply, and assaulting and resisting police, all on October 27, 2010, then made his own bail application, which has been adjourned for a week. McKenna is just one of a number of defendants who have been left without legal representation following a decision by the group of solicitors who would normally appear in criminal cases to withdraw and refuse to handle such cases.

The solicitors are in dispute with the Justice Minister David Ford and his lowering of the |legal aid fees paid in criminal cases.

While the solicitors claim they are “not on strike”, they say that they are simply not taking on any such cases again in light of the new guidelines as set out by Mr Ford, and nor are they in a position to do so.

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