Northern Ireland

Talks continue over Northern Ireland legal aid dispute

Robes and a wig inside a courtroom
Image caption Since May of last year, many lawyers have been refusing to work on criminal cases involving legal aid

Talks aimed at resolving a dispute over new legal aid payments are continuing.

The talks, being chaired by a senior English barrister, began on Wednesday, but failed to reach agreement.

Barristers and solicitors have said the new fees will seriously undermine their ability to provide proper legal representation for people who need it, but cannot afford to pay for it.

Since May of last year, many lawyers have been refusing to work on criminal cases involving legal aid.

The row has resulted in delays in more than 900 court cases, including charges ranging from murder to drink driving.

In November, the Bar Council of Northern Ireland and the Law Society lost an unprecedented legal bid to have new rules introduced by Justice Minister David Ford declared unlawful.

But a judge said the rules did not provide fair pay to defence solicitors in some criminal cases.

A week later, one of Northern Ireland's most senior judges entered the fray and appealed for an end to the row.

Lord Justice Weir said the dispute meant defendants charged with what are often serious offences are unable to access the expert legal advice that they require.

Mediation

Last month, the Bar Council, Law Society and Department of Justice announced that they would enter mediation in a bid to end the dispute.

A planned appeal against the failed attempt to have new rules for legal aid fees quashed was adjourned.

All of those involved have signed a confidentiality agreement, which means they cannot make any comment about the discussions.

If the talks fail to secure agreement, the issue has been listed for a three day hearing at the Court of Appeal next week.

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