N. Ireland Politics

Questions and answers on the legal aid dispute

What is legal aid?

Legal aid is the system where the government pays the cost of lawyers for those who can not afford to pay.

How much do NI solicitors and barristers make from legal aid?

In May, it was announced that a group of 200 barristers and solicitors' firms earned almost £70m in legal aid payments in the last financial year.

Figures also released by the justice minister showed that senior barristers in NI had been paid more than £55m in legal aid between them in the last five years.

How did the dispute begin?

The Court Service, which foots the bill, said the cost in Northern Ireland was too high and said the cost had doubled during the past decade.

In 2009 it announced it wanted to reduce the £90m annual bill for legal aid.

In an interview with the BBC in May 2010, Justice minister David Ford said barristers needed to be more realistic about the financial circumstances facing the assembly and announced he would go ahead with plans to cut millions of pounds from the legal aid.

The court service then introduced a new maximum fee of £152.50 an hour for preparation work in what are called "very high cost cases" - down from £180 an hour.

Before the cuts, the NI cost was around 20% more expensive per head of population than in England and Wales. The Republic of Ireland also has a more liberal use of public defenders, and the cost is even lower there.

Why was the reduction in fees opposed?

The barristers' ruling body, the Bar Council opposed the reduction, arguing that cutting fees would damage the criminal justice system.

Consequently, barristers began withdrawing their services.

When were the cuts made?

The justice minister announced the cuts in March 2011, in a move which he said would save £18m.

The changes meant fees to solicitors in standard cases were to be reduced by 25% under changes in the Legal Aid for Crown Court Proceedings (Costs) (Amendment) Rules. Barristers' rates would also drop by 20% as part of the changes.

A month later when the changes came into force, defence lawyers responded by declaring a withdrawal of services in serious criminal proceedings.

They said they were prepared to accept some reductions, but that the cuts went too far and would leave them unable to prepare crown court cases properly.

What cases have been affected?

Defence solicitors signalled in April that they would not be there to represent clients facing charges up to murder when they were passed to the crown court.

Legal representation stopped as barristers depended on these lawyers for their instructions. Preliminary enquiry hearings have still been carried out at Magistrates' Court level.

At the end of June, nearly 300 defendants facing criminal charges did not have legal representation due to the disupte.

Did every defence lawyer join the strike?

In May, Antrim laywer Gary Bell spoke out and said those protesting over lower fees needed to rethink their position and said those on strike did not represent all solicitors.

Also during this month, Mr Ford said a number of firms had responded to letters sent by his officials to say they were willing to work at the current legal aid rates.

What will happen now?

The Law Society Council cannot direct solicitors to take, or not take, work. However, it is believed the strike will end while the Society continues to "review" the new arrangements.