Barristers’ strike yields immediate boost to Northern Ireland legal aid budget
An £11 million boost to Northern Ireland’s legal aid budget was announced today as more than 200 criminal barristers staged a day of strike action over lengthy payment delays.
The Department of Justice announced the additional £10.9m in funding following talks with the Department of Finance, but the Bar of Northern Ireland said the “temporary sticking plaster” was too little and too late to avert the historic strike.
Barristers are routinely waiting up to six months for payment following the conclusion of a legal aid case because of a deliberate policy to delay payments to manage the legal aid budget, which cannot meet the demand for services.
Moira Smyth KC, chair of the Bar Council, said: “The Bar Council has, for many months, been exhaustively exploring every other possible measure and has consistently called for urgent action from the Department of Justice to avoid any withdrawal of services taking place. Sadly, our warnings that access to justice is reaching a tipping point have now been realised.
“The Department needs to do more than merely recognise the validity of our arguments. They need to be both accountable and responsible for ensuring that they adopt a policy that will see payments for work done made within a reasonable timeframe.
“The lack of a justice minister is no excuse for this worsening issue. No other jurisdiction across the UK and Ireland has chosen to address legal aid budget pressures by financially punishing the lawyers who provide a crucial public service.”
“This untenable budget management policy of the DoJ places the very future of publicly funded legal services at risk and weakens access to justice. The Bar Council is prepared to challenge the generational harm that will inevitably be inflicted upon our justice system.”
Thomas Thibodeau, one of the criminal barristers on strike today, said: “Legal aid is at the heart of the justice system, with studies showing that there are social and economic benefits to come from increased public investment in legal aid.
“The now intolerable payment delays risk turning away many more of our colleagues from representing the most vulnerable citizens in society facing the most challenging of circumstances.”
Taryn Graham, another barrister, added: “As independent, self-employed practitioners these payment delays place us in a wholly unprecedented position. The financial challenges being faced are hitting younger and female lawyers the hardest.
“Today’s initial strike action has not been taken lightly. It is a regrettable but necessary measure to preserve the viability of legal aid as a vital demand-led public service that embodies the core of access to justice.”
The Department of Justice’s permanent secretary Richard Pengelly CB said: “I fully appreciate the challenges faced by the legal profession in Northern Ireland. It is no secret that the current budget provision is insufficient, and I have made this point to the profession on a number of occasions.
“Rather than representing a late effort to address the issue, this multi-million package is evidence of the seriousness with which my department views the issue. It also highlights the work that has been done and continues to be done to resolve it.
“This money will greatly assist in improving the projected payment times to the end of the current financial year. I will continue to engage with the relevant organisations in an effort to manage the issue going forward. Given this additional funding and the ongoing engagement, the action being taken by the Bar is premature at this time.
“I am sympathetic to the frustration of the profession and remain committed to highlighting the issue of timely payments at every opportunity, however this action risks adversely impacting those who need legal representation at a time when the Department of Justice cannot resolve the matter.”
The Irish government last month announced a 10 per cent increase in legal aid fees a week after criminal barristers withdrew services on the first full day of the new legal year. The Irish Bar Council subsequently said it was an “important first step” to full fee restoration.
Criminal barristers in England and Wales ended an all-out strike last October after the UK government committed to a 15 per cent increase in legal aid fees. The CBA there had originally sought a 25 per cent increase.