Legal Aid Fees Dispute: “The reality is this is happening across the north”

The dispute between the Northern Ireland Justice Minister, David Ford, and solicitors over cuts to legal aid fees in Crown Court Proceedings seems to be intensifying.

The Belfast Telegraph reports

Pearse MacDermott, from the [Solicitors Criminal Bar Association (SCBA)], said: “Recent action has been taken as it is felt that the rates of remuneration introduced will jeopardise access to justice, particularly in more complicated and serious criminal cases.”

Cases can spend months being heard in magistrates’ courts before they are passed to the Crown Court.

Mr MacDermott added 100% of briefs in Belfast proceeding from the magistrates’ to Crown Court since Wednesday have involved solicitors refusing to take them and the same action had been taken across other parts of Northern Ireland.

That claim is echoed by comments in a BBC report of another case where solicitors for four defendants have come “off record”.

Brian Archer, a solicitor for one of the accused, said it was with regret that he and his colleagues were coming off record, but that felt they had “no alternative”.

Outside the court Fergal McElhatton, who had been representing another of the suspects, insisted the action was now widening.

He said: “My understanding is that in terms of Enniskillen Magistrates’ Court alone 11 firms have advised they will come off record on any preliminary enquiry, as and when they are held, and will not appear at the Crown Court.

“The reality is this is happening across the north. This has been rolled out in Derry, Downpatrick and Craigavon.”