Legal aid row puts jobs at risk, solicitors warn
Solicitors involved in a dispute over legal aid have warned that the stand-off could result in hundreds of job losses across Northern Ireland.
Lawyers from the Solicitors’ Criminal Bar Association said there was a “real likelihood” that firms would be forced to lay off staff if new rules on legal aid fees are not reversed.
They said huge numbers of solicitors had already withdrawn their services from new criminal cases after their standard legal aid fees were slashed by 25%.
The revised fee structure, introduced by Justice Minister David Ford, has met with staunch opposition since it came into force on April 13.
Lawyers across the country have refused to act in protest over the reductions, leaving defendants without representation and threatening to bring the courts to a standstill.
Belfast solicitor Pearse MacDermott said members of the Law Society had been “surprised and annoyed” when the cuts were announced.
“We’ve been involved in 18 months of negotiations with the Courts Service and we put forward a proposal that recognised the need for reductions,” he said.
“The figure of 25% doesn’t even come close to what we’re having to deal with — in real terms it’s a 54% cut to our fees across the board.
“On that reduction, we cannot provide proper services to our clients, we cannot prepare our defence properly, and we’re concerned that doing the work for that level of fees would remove defendants’ right to a fair trial.”
The solicitors’ group said it had not been contacted by the Courts Service or the Justice Minister since the revised fee structure came into force.
North Belfast solicitor Matthew Higgins said he was concerned about the knock-on effect of the legal aid dispute on employment.
“A large number of individuals will see massive reductions in their pay — or worse. It’s not the fat cat lawyers who are taking the cut here.”
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Justice Minister David Ford has introduced new rules governing solicitors’ fees in legal aid cases. The rules, which came into force on April 13, cut fees in standard legal aid cases by 25%. Solicitors have claimed this figure represents a 54% pay cut for their Crown Court services. Lawyers across the province have said the reduction is unworkable and are withdrawing from Crown Court cases in protest. The refusal to work has affected criminal cases in Belfast, Ballymena, Downpatrick, Larne and Londonderry.