Northern Ireland

NI legal aid: Backlog of 531 criminal cases since fees row began

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Media captionThe dispute over legal aid fees had caused "a significant and growing backlog" of court cases, a senior judge said

More than 500 criminal cases are currently unable to proceed due to a dispute over reforms to legal aid fees in Northern Ireland.

Justice Minister David Ford introduced what he said were necessary cuts to payments to lawyers in May.

Defence lawyers have withdrawn from new criminal cases requiring legal aid in protest at the changes.

The BBC understands there is a backlog of 531 cases relating to 629 defendants that have been delayed over the row.

The cases are understood to cover crimes including murder to drink driving.

The legal aid reforms were made after the Department of Justice faced reductions to its budget, with Mr Ford saying Northern Ireland could not continue to fund the UK's highest level of legal aid pay.

Reluctant

The Bar Council and the Law Society of Northern Ireland, which represent barristers and solicitors, brought a joint challenge over the cuts to legal aid fees.

Last week, a judge said the new rules did not provide fair pay to solicitors in some criminal cases, but he refused to quash the reforms.

A senior Northern Ireland law lord said on Friday the dispute had caused "a significant and growing backlog" of court cases and he appealed for the row to be resolved.

At the start of a review of criminal cases at Belfast Crown Court, Lord Justice Weir said he wanted all parties "to do their very best to bring the matter to an early conclusion".

He said defendants "quite understandably, are reluctant to proceed" with cases as they could not access expert legal advice.

"When the disagreement is ultimately resolved there will be continuing delay while the necessary weeks or months of preparation that has been postponed is then carried out," he added.

Courtesy

He said judges could also "clearly see the increasingly adverse effect that its continuation is having upon the due administration of criminal justice".

It has also emerged that prosecution lawyers have their own row over fees with the director of Public Prosecution Service.

During the same criminal cases review hearing, several prosecution lawyers said their governing body, the Criminal Bar Association, was disputing a new fees scale as set out by Barra McGrory QC.

However, they said many would still appear "as a matter of courtesy" to the courts.

They added that their dispute may only be resolved once the row involving defence lawyers has ended.

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