Lawyers’ challenge to legal aid cuts rejected by judge

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A court challenge by lawyers against cuts to legal aid funding has failed.

A High Court judge in Belfast rejected a joint bid from barristers and solicitors to quash the fee structure changes in criminal cases introduced by Stormont’s Justice Minister David Ford.

Justice Maguire did find against Mr Ford on “two specific aspects” of his decision-making process. He ruled that the level of pre-trial fees paid to solicitors in certain cases was not sufficient and that proper impact assessments on the overall proposals were not undertaken.

The judge said he expected the Department of Justice to “speedily rectify the situation” on those matters.

However, in regard to the substantive challenge mounted by the Bar of Northern Ireland and the Law Society NI against the new legal aid fee structures, the judge upheld Mr Ford’s position.

Lawyers had been engaged in industrial action in protest against the new fee arrangements and have been refusing to proceed with new cases for a number of months.

President of the Law Society of Northern Ireland, Arleen Elliott said: “The Law Society will carefully consider the judgment before responding in full.

“The society continues to press the minister for justice to provide an adequately funded justice system, defined by the needs of the public and which continues to provide access to independent legal representation.”

Responding to the judgment, Mr Ford said: “I welcome the careful consideration the court has given to this matter and will carefully consider the points made in the judgment.

“My officials will engage urgently with the Law Society and the Bar Council to address those aspects of the new legal aid rules on which the court has found against the department.

“As the court did not strike down the new legal aid rules, I hope that solicitors and barristers who have been refusing to undertake work in Crown Court cases will agree now to do so while my officials work urgently to address those aspects of the new rules on which the court has found in favour of the applicants.”