Bar Council welcomes ‘first step’ on path to fee restoration

Bar Council welcomes 'first step' on path to fee restoration

Sara Phelan SC

The Bar Council has welcomed a 10 per cent increase in criminal legal aid fees in Budget 2024 as an “important first step” on the path to full fee restoration for criminal practitioners.

Justice minister Helen McEntee yesterday confirmed that a total of €9 million has been allocated to provide for a 10 per cent increase in fees paid under the criminal legal aid scheme early in 2024, while the government will begin engaging with the legal professions to identify further reforms.

Reforms “including automation of payments… will support improved efficiency and governance in the administration of the scheme, and chart a path to greater transparency and fairness in the level of fees paid under criminal legal aid”, the minister said.

The announcement follows a historic one-day strike by criminal barristers last week, who withdrew services and gathered on the steps of courthouses across the State to urge the government to take action.

The striking barristers highlighted that fees paid under the criminal legal aid scheme remain below 2002 levels in nominal terms, representing a cut of more than 40 per cent in real terms.

Sara Phelan SC, chair of the Council of The Bar of Ireland, said: “All we have been seeking on behalf of our members is that they are treated fairly. The fact is that barristers have been treated differently to other workers in the criminal justice system, and to other workers who are paid by the State, for many years.

“The allocation announced by government… represents an unwinding of the 10 per cent cut that was uniquely applied to barristers in 2011. This is a welcome and important first step.

“However, even after this 10 per cent is restored, the full range of FEMPI-era cuts that were applied across the public sector, will continue to apply to our profession.

“For that reason, we welcome the announcement that this will be followed by a process to review the structure and level of fees paid to criminal barristers. That process must be independent, meaningful and time-limited.

“Payment structure and fee rates will require careful consideration to ensure that criminal barristers across all jurisdictions, including the District Court, are treated fairly, and that must include the continued unwinding of the cuts that remain which date from 2009 and 2010, as well as the restoration of the link to public pay agreements which was unilaterally severed by Government in 2008.”

Seán Guerin SC, chair of the criminal State bar committee, added: “Members of the criminal bar withdrew their services last week with profound regret, but in the belief that doing so was necessary.

“Practising criminal law must represent a sustainable career choice if the rights of victims of crime and of those accused of serious crime are to be protected and vindicated. It’s a matter of fundamental importance for our democracy that the rights of those who engage with the criminal justice system are defended by skilled and experienced barristers, and that work deserves fair recompense.

“Our members have participated fully in the ongoing reform and modernisation of the criminal justice system, and we look forward to engaging with government on the next necessary steps to secure a sustainable criminal bar.”

Ms Phelan concluded: “We want to acknowledge the support we have received across the political spectrum in the last number of months for the reversal of the cuts imposed on our profession, and in particular the support of the Minister for Justice Helen McEntee TD.

“The Council of The Bar of Ireland will carefully consider the detail to follow from the Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and we look forward to actively engaging with them on these important matters.”

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