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Legal aid fees fight may go to court

Outgoing Justice Minister David Ford may face a legal challenge as part of an escalating dispute over cuts in fees to lawyers.

Moves have been made which could lead to decisions over reducing legal aid payments for serious criminal cases being judicially reviewed.

An increasing number of defence solicitors across Northern Ireland have stopped work in cases because they say the new arrangements make proper preparations impossible.

Legal sources have now disclosed that a pre-action letter was sent to the Department of Justice. That correspondence allows a period of time in which to either answer any claims contained within it, or to come up with a potential resolution.

“What we are waiting for now is a response to the issues we have raised. That will determine whether there is a legal challenge,” one source said.

The row is over new rules introduced by Mr Ford which bring an end to enhanced rates paid out in ‘Very High Cost Cases'. Fees to solicitors have been reduced by 25% under changes in legal aid for Crown Court proceedings, while barristers’ rates will also drop by 20%.

Mr Ford has said the move will save more than £18m on legal aid expenditure. But lawyers claim it will represent an average total pay cut of more than 50%.

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Defendants being sent for Crown Court trial now face the prospect of having no legal representation.

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