The Legal Aid Problem – it isn’t going away you know..

In this mornings paper copy of the Belfast Telegraph [sorry not on the interweb at time of writing] Deborah McAleese writes,

“A high profile solicitor [DG Bell] who broke ranks in the legal aid dispute has dramatically withdrawn his offer to work for reduced fees amid allegations of bullying in the increasingly bitter battle between lawyers and the Justice Minister. It is understood that the firms owner took the decision after being subjected to hostility in court from other solicitors”.

Hmm would have thought he would have expected a few hostilities in Court – probably not what he means though!  But this development clearly means that the Justice Minister is on the back foot again and that the legal professions ranks are holding.

To date there are 167 Crown Court cases which are unrepresented.

In another update to this saga on Friday 10th the Justice Minister was asked by David McIlveen MLA what the amount of fees paid from the Legal Services Commission to barristers in Northern Ireland was. The following were detailed:

2006/07 £11,965,192

2007/08 £9,290,325

2008/09 £11,101,224

2009/10 £15,568,813

2010/11 £7,752,523

Total £55,678,077

The fees are further split down by QC [although this is done anonymously].  It is true that some aspects of the media are sensationalising the story [you’d nearly believe that every barrister in NI was reaping in over 500k a year] of course this is clearly not the case. Some more figures this time from the BBC

In relation to crown court work (ie the criminal end of legal aid where the current dispute lies) in 2009/10 :

61% of solicitors’ firms earned less than £20,000

24% earned between £20,000 and £100,000

11% earned between £100,000 and £250,000

3% earned between £250,000 and £500,000

Only one firm (less than 1%) earned over £500,000

The one thing that is common between the Justice Minister and the Bar Council is that they do not agree on any of the figures. To be honest comparative data is hard to come by since Scotland uses a public defender system and the law is slightly different again in England and Wales. This “unfair” comparative aspect seems to be one of the main concern for the bodies representing the solicitors/barristers.

The only thing we know for definite is that the Legal Aid budget needs savings introduced, the outstanding question still is how we do it?

Born and living in Northern Ireland, I’m a Lecturer by trade and a pragmatic Unionist by design. Interests include Middle Eastern / African politics, British cinema and sea fishing!