Top judges lose power to grant legal aid for appeals

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Northern Ireland’s highest criminal court has lost its power to grant legal aid for challenges to convictions and sentences, it has emerged.

A drafting error in transitional legislative provisions means judges in the Court of Appeal are temporarily unable to approve public funding.

Amid urgent efforts to remedy the oversight at least one case has been forced to adjourn.

Lawyers for a woman attempting to overturn a money laundering conviction are now set to take legal action against the Department of Justice.

Solicitor Diarmaid Kelly described the situation as “startling”.

He said: “The highest criminal court in Northern Ireland, the Court of Criminal Appeal, has been stripped of its authority to grant legal aid for all appeals against conviction and sentence.”

Mr Kelly’s client had her appeal listed for hearing on Thursday.

But the challenge was put on hold after senior judges announced at the start of proceedings that they currently have no statutory authority to grant legal aid.

Decisions on whether to allocate public funding are taken at the end of Court of Appeal cases.

A Department of Justice spokesman said: “The department apologies for this error and would hope to have this remedied within days.

“As legal aid in criminal appeal cases is normally granted at the conclusion of the case, it is hoped by the department that this error should not cause delays in progressing such appeals.”