Mediation agreed in legal aid dispute

Attorney General John Larkin
Attorney General John Larkin

Lawyers and the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland are to enter mediation in a bid to end a bitter pay dispute, it has been confirmed.

A two-day process aimed at resolving the stand-off which has created a huge backlog in criminal trials will take place within the next fortnight.

It is understood that both sides have agreed on an English QC to act as mediator.

Senior judges adjourned an ongoing court challenge to the new rules for legal aid fees in Northern Ireland after being informed of the development.

Barristers began to withdraw from cases last year in protest at the reduced payments within Justice Minister David Ford’s reforms.

Some solicitors’ firms have also joined in the industrial action.

The ongoing dispute has stalled around 800 cases waiting to go to the Crown Court.

Judicial review proceedings were launched by the Bar Council and the Law Society in a joint bid to have the new payment arrangements quashed.

In November last year a High Court judge held that the rules do not provide fair pay to defence solicitors in some criminal cases.

He also identified a breach in the impact assessment carried out as part of the reforms.

But despite declaring the decision making process unlawful in two areas, he declined to quash the rules.

An appeal against his verdict was set to begin this week in front of three senior judges in Belfast.

However, following a suggestion put to the parties by Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, it was confirmed on Friday that mediation is to take place.

The Court of Appeal was told the Bar Council and Law Society, and the Department of Justice, have all signed up.

On that basis legal proceedings were put on hold.

The judges also listed the case for a provisional three-day hearing next month should the mediation prove unsuccessful.