Northern Ireland lawyers' strike leaves almost 400 defendants with no barrister
Almost 400 people up in court have been left with no lawyer as a strike by Northern Ireland barristers intensifies.
Lawyers are continuing to refuse to take on new criminal cases in protest against cuts to their pay, resulting in 323 cases involving 376 suspects being halted, which has in turn created a major backlog in the courts.
A legal challenge launched by the Bar Council and the Law Society against the pay cuts is due to be heard this week.
In May, barristers withdrew from cases in protest against reduced legal aid payments.
The Bar Council said that the cuts meant barristers would not get any money for parts of work.
It added it was clear that "the majority of criminal barristers share a similar view that they are not able to accept instructions in cases under the amended rules".
But Justice Minister David Ford said Northern Ireland could not continue to fund the UK's highest level of legal aid pay.
Alastair Ross, chairman of Stormont's justice committee, agreed that, due to budget constraints, payments had to be cut.
"I think there is a recognition from everyone in the justice sector that budget pressures are likely to continue for many years to come, and as a result current levels of legal aid spending are unsustainable," he said.
"It is therefore important that people work collaboratively to find innovative ways of reducing costs whilst minimising any impact on access to justice.
"One of the greatest challenges that I can see is the potential for an increase in the number of personal litigants - that is, people representing themselves in court - if they cannot afford legal representation.
"Not only does this negatively impact the individuals' chance for a successful outcome, but they can also significantly slow down court proceedings as they often struggle to effectively represent their case."
Mr Ford faced down a similar legal aid strike by lawyers in 2011, with a number of law firms eventually agreeing to work for reduced payments.
But the Bar Council said that barristers were determined to continue their strike action for as long as necessary.
The industrial action affects only new cases, and barristers will continue with cases that began before the new payment rules came into effect in May.
Providing a boost to their cause, some solicitors' companies have also decided to join the unofficial strike action.