Lawyers back appeal against legal aid ruling

Justice Minister David Ford introduced new rules in May reforming legal aid payments
Justice Minister David Ford introduced new rules in May reforming legal aid payments

Lawyers are to mount an appeal after the High Court refused to quash new rules for legal aid fees in Northern Ireland, it has emerged.

Confirmation came as barristers vowed to continue turning down criminal cases in protest at Justice Minister David Ford’s reforms.

Their position, which could result in a worsening backlog of delayed trials, was reaffirmed at a meeting of the Bar of Northern Ireland on Monday night.

Bar Council chairman Gerry McAlinden QC said membership made their views clear.

“We will go forward with the appeal case,” he confirmed.

“Criminal practitioners have indicated that they are resolute in their current action of not appearing in such cases.

“It is a source of major concern that we now face a period of prolonged action which will only further deepen the difficulties, pressure and backlog already evident in the system.”

Last month a High Court judge held that the new rules do not provide fair pay to defence solicitors in some criminal cases.

He also identified a breach in the impact assessment carried out around Mr Ford’s reforms.

But despite declaring the decision-making process unlawful in two areas, Mr Justice Maguire declined to quash the rules.

Instead, he said it was up to the Department of Justice to now rectify the situation “speedily”.

His verdict came in a joint challenge to the legal aid fee cuts mounted by solicitors and barristers.

Mr Ford introduced the reforms to payments for criminal work in May, insisting they are necessary and just.

With the minister facing a reduced departmental budget, he has maintained that Northern Ireland cannot continue to fund the UK’s highest level of legal aid pay.

But lawyers have taken industrial action in response to the cuts, withdrawing professional services in criminal cases as part of the protest.

Well over 500 criminal cases are currently unable to proceed due to the dispute.

Judicial review proceedings were launched by the Bar Council and the Law Society.

They argued that the two professional bodies are being denied fair or reasonable payment, and that the cuts could result in innocent defendants being convicted.

An allegedly flawed impact assessment, consultation process and statistical comparative analysis renders the rules unlawful, according to their case.

Mr Justice Maguire held that no ministerial irrationality had been established.

He also rejected claims that consultation was carried out with a preordained outcome.

The meeting on Monday night received unanimous endorsement for the decision of the Bar Council to appeal against the judgment.

Barristers also voted unanimously to maintain the stance of refusing to appear in the Crown Court in any case governed by the 2015 Rules.

Proposals set out in a letter from the minister last week were rejected on the basis that they do not constitute a realistic attempt to resolve the dispute.

According to the legal profession they provided no framework for ensuring that criminal practitioners representing defendants in the Crown Court receive fair and adequate remuneration for complex and demanding work.