Northern Ireland

No legal aid for convict who sacked lawyers

The Department of Justice will not have to provide legal aid to a convicted prisoner who dismissed his lawyers, the Court of Appeal has ruled.

The High Court had ruled that all necessary steps should be taken to ensure he had legal representation.

However, this was overturned by Court of Appeal judges who said this was a matter for the trial judge.

Raymond Brownlee is awaiting sentencing for wounding with intent, making threats to kill and false imprisonment.

At one stage it was thought the Belfast man could avoid being sent to jail, despite the serious crimes, because of the ongoing legal aid stalemate.

No barrister in Northern Ireland has been prepared to act for him at the sentencing hearing for the fixed fees of £240 for senior counsel and £120 for junior counsel, available under a revised payment scheme.

Stand-off

The amended rules for fees in serious criminal cases were introduced in 2011 after a stand-off between defence lawyers and Justice Minister David Ford.

Brownlee had brought a judicial review challenge to the High Court, which held that the rules were inflexible and lacking provisions for exceptional circumstances.

A judge then ordered the Department of Justice to take all necessary steps to provide effective funding.

The department challenged this in the Court of Appeal. It argued his right to a fair trial had not been breached if he remained without a lawyer after sacking his legal team for no good reason.

The Court of Appeal accepted there may be a breach of the European Convention of Human Rights if an accused lost his lawyers through no fault of his own and could not find alternative representation because of the inadequacy of legal aid funding.

"The inflexibility of these rules potentially raises the possibility of such an outcome," said Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan.

"In this case, however, the material before us suggests that the accused dismissed his counsel and solicitors without any reasonable explanation at a late stage of his trial."

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