Little sympathy for legal stand-off
The Stormont Justice Minister David Ford is demonstrating firm resolve in handling the protracted dispute with lawyers over the payments for legal aid. At the root of the dispute is the drive by the minister to bring the large legal aid bill within the strict budget set by the Stormont Executive.
The fees in Northern Ireland, which are significantly higher than in other parts of the United Kingdom, need to be cut substantially, and in some cases solicitors are facing pay cuts of some 50%.
The legal profession is obviously not happy, and more than 180 crime suspects are now without legal representation. So far, 74 legal firms have withdrawn from cases in the Crown Court process.
Some barristers have indicated that they will not assist solicitors who are willing to accept the new rates, and the Justice Minister is now approaching lawyers from inside Northern Ireland and beyond to try to fill the gap.
The lawyers insist that they are not being greedy, and claim that if the costs are reduced to the proposed levels, they will find it uneconomic to take on criminal cases.
The stand-off is serious, and so far there is little evidence of a compromise. The Justice Minister has the difficult task of ensuring that defendants have access to justice, but at the same time ensuring that he fulfils his mandate to keep costs within his set budget.
No doubt the lawyers feel strongly about their situation, but there is little public sympathy for their case, when traditionally their fees have been significantly higher than elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
Legal aid is meant to provide financial assistance to those who need it, but not necessarily to line the pockets of lawyers whom most people feel are already quite well off.
This is a time for reckoning, and it is to be hoped that in tomorrow's meeting both sides can reach an honourable compromise.