Editor's Viewpoint: Ford was right to take on solicitors
The decision by Northern Ireland solicitors not to continue with their strike over legal aid payments marks the end of a long and bitter dispute which at its height reflected badly on those directly involved.
The strike began when the Justice Minister, David Ford, announced cuts in the legal aid budget of some £25m over three years.
To the general public this seemed reasonable, given that belt-tightening is affecting so many people from all backgrounds, and the fact that the legal aid fees here were around 20% higher than in England and Wales. The public had every right to expect a reasoned reaction from the legal profession. But most solicitors went on strike, and made it almost impossible for the minority who wanted to work within the new charges.
Solicitors engaged in criminal legal aid argued strongly that the lower fees made preparations for cases more difficult and that this threatened a fair trial. However, the public, who believe that the legal profession is generally well enough paid, quickly saw through such humbug. Solicitors talked about the "need" to avoid cuts in fees, but almost everyone else regarded this as pure greed.
Despite the hostility of many lawyers, the Justice Minister remained commendably firm. A settlement has been reached within the new terms, but with the department willing to consider some minor additional payments.
In any significant dispute, direct confrontation rarely works in the best interests of anyone. It was disheartening for the public to witness the legal profession opposing the Stormont administration over such a fundamental issue as legal aid. Happily, however, this has been a victory in the end for common sense, and the outcome is a vindication of the eventual willingness of all sides to engage in constructive dialogue.
It is important that lawyers and politicians are seen to be working together for the common good. This is especially so in Northern Ireland, where there are so many other challenges to be faced.