Criminal barristers in Northern Ireland today declared they are withdrawing their services from new cases requiring legal aid in protest against revised rules reducing levels of payments.
The Legal Aid for Crown Court Proceedings (Costs) (Amendment) Rules (Northern Ireland) came into effect on 5 May.
Criminal Bar Association chairman Gavan Duffy QC said the Department of Justice’s proposals represented cuts of almost 50% from levels set in 2005.
Duffy said the association was ‘committed to providing the highest standard of representation to those members of society who face the most serious and complex criminal cases in the Crown court.
‘This decision has been made after careful deliberation and it is with deep regret that the association has resolved that these standards cannot be achieved under these amended rules’.
The DoJ was established in April 2010, following the devolution of justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Justice minister David Ford (pictured) said it was ‘surprising and disappointing’ the CBA is taking this action ‘when they have a legal challenge pending’.
Northern Ireland’s Bar Council and Law Society are jointly launching an application for leave to apply for judicial review regarding the recent changes to the levels of remuneration payable by way of criminal legal aid for cases in the Crown court.
Ford said: ‘At this stage I am not aware of the detail of the challenge, but the appropriate place for this to be addressed is through the courts.’
Ford said the new Crown court rules arrangements were developed following a ‘detailed comparison’ with fees paid in similar cases in England and Wales, and consultation with the Law Society and Bar Council.
‘The fees recognise the work involved in criminal cases and the reductions are necessary in order to ensure value for money and because there is a limited budget available 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.’
Ford urged any lawyer who had decided not to act for those in receipt of legal aid funding in response to the fees dispute ‘to reconsider and to continue to act in the best interests of their clients’.
Duffy said the rules would ‘inevitably dilute’ the quality of representation available to some of the most vulnerable members of society and victims of crime.
‘Independent counsel fulfils a fundamental role ensuring access to justice. They provide an important protection to the citizen from the power of the state.
‘That safeguard can no longer be guaranteed under these proposed arrangements.’
The CBA’s decision comes a week after one of Ireland’s leading law firms, Belfast-based KRW Law, announced it was withdrawing from providing Crown court criminal defence services.
Law Society of Northern Ireland president Arleen Elliott said the Society was concerned that the rates for legal aid work in Crown court proceedings 'were not reflective of the scale of professional experience and expertise required of a solicitor charged with ensuring their client's case is properly presented to the courts'.
'Some solicitors' practices in Northern Ireland who undertake criminal legal aid work are considering if they can properly accept instructions in such circumstances. Ultimately, that decision rests with each individual practice.'