Legal aid fees row stand-off widens
The stand-off between solicitors and the Courts Service over the outgoing Justice Minister’s plans to dramatically reduce legal aid fees is spreading across Northern Ireland.
Another 11 law firms in Co Fermanagh are to stop work on serious criminal cases as part of the escalating dispute over payments, it has been claimed.
And in Belfast solicitors have refused to take any serious |criminal cases in the Crown Court since last week.
The news emerged as solicitors for men returned for trial on charges connected with a major cannabis factory in Belfast came off record. The four to be left without a lawyer are Chinese nationals charged with cultivating cannabis and possessing class B drugs with intent to supply. One of the legal representatives said the stand-off was now being rolled out across Northern Ireland. Brian Archer, a solicitor for one of the accused, said it was with regret that he and his colleagues were coming off record, but felt they had “no alternative”.
Outside the court Fergal McElhatton, who had been representing another of the suspects, insisted the action was widening.
He said: “My understanding is that in terms of Enniskillen Magistrates Court alone, 11 firms have advised they will come off record on any preliminary inquiry, as and when they are held, and will not appear at the Crown Court. The reality is this is happening across the North. This has been rolled out in Derry, Downpatrick and Craigavon.”
The heightening row is over new rules introduced by David 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.
Justice Minister David Ford has said the move to end enhanced rates in ‘Very High Cost Cases' will save more than £18m on ever-increasing and unsustainable expenditure on legal aid. But lawyers claim it will represent a pay cut of 53% and make it impossible to ensure clients receive a fair trial.