One of Ireland’s leading law firms has announced it is withdrawing from providing Crown court criminal defence services in protest against new rules reducing the level of legal aid payments.
Belfast-based KRW Law said the Legal Aid for Crown Court Proceedings (Costs) (Amendment) Rules (Northern Ireland), which came into effect on 5 May, were a ‘direct attack’ on the capacity of legal defence practitioners to exercise their ‘proper function’ to clients and wider society.
KRW Law said in its announcement that ‘repeated cuts since 2005 have confirmed the suspicions of some practitioners in 2005 that this scheme would result in the death of criminal defence services by a thousand paper cuts’.
‘There has never been a formal acknowledgment by the DoJ and its predecessor of the expertise and value brought to the justice system by criminal defence lawyers, not only in the recent past but extending back to the darkest days of the conflict.
‘Instead, since devolution there has been a process of demonisation of lawyers masking the reality that a top-class service has been provided over many difficulties.
‘The thanks the profession has received is to suffer the cynical and vicious onslaught from the DoJ intended to out criminal defence lawyers out of business which only serves to prejudice wider society.’
The DoJ said: ‘The new Crown court rules arrangements were developed following a detailed comparison with the fees paid in similar cases in England and Wales. The reductions are necessary in order to ensure value for money and because there is a limited budget for legal aid.
‘However, it is important to note that even with the new fees, legal representatives in Northern Ireland will continue to be better remunerated for these cases than their counterparts in England and Wales.
‘It is regrettable that any legal representative should decide to withdraw their services. I would encourage any solicitor taking this action to reconsider and to continue to act for their clients.’
KRW Law said it was withdrawing services until the High Court ruled on a judicial review to be lodged by the Law Society of Northern Ireland.
The Department of Justice was established in April 2010, following the devolution of justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Despite introducing measures to reduce costs, justice minister David Ford (pictured) said earlier this year that Northern Ireland continued to spend more on legal aid per head than England and Wales, and ‘well beyond’ its budget.