NI: Draft new legal aid rules presented to MLAs

Alastair Ross MLA
Alastair Ross MLA

Draft new rules for the remuneration of criminal barristers and solicitors in the Crown Court were outlined by the Department of Justice yesterday.

Mark McGuckin, representing the Department, told the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Justice Committee that a deal had been struck with representatives of the legal profession which would lead to the Department spending an extra £2.4 million.

Alastair Ross MLA, chair of the committee, said: “We are pleased we have found a resolution to this.

“There was a fear this would drag on, obviously making the backlog even worse - so we are glad we have got a deal.”

After a process of mediation with the Law Society and Bar Council, the Department last week found a compromise to resolve a long-running dispute over changes to the legal aid fee structure.

The Criminal Bar Association and some solicitor firms had refused to work on cases remunerated under the legal aid rules introduced in May 2015.

A judicial review launched by the Law Society and Bar Council against the Department failed to have the new rules quashed, but the High Court in Belfast found for the applicants on two of their arguments.

It is believed the success of mediation means the lawyers’ representative bodies will no longer appeal the ruling.

Mr McGuckin told MLAs yesterday: “The main thrust of the draft rules which are before you today is to make the amendments to the fee tables to reflect the agreed changes to the fees and to introduce the trial preparation fee for solicitors.

“There are also several consequential changes to reflect the change in guilty plea arrangements for solicitors.

“Subject to the views of the committee, we intend to make arrangements to complete the legislative process as quickly as possible.”

Mr McGuckin also confirmed that additional judicial resources would be deployed to help clear a backlog of almost 1,000 criminal cases after criminal barristers and solicitors returned to work on Friday.

He told the committee that clearing the backlog “could take the better part of the incoming year” but a clearer estimate would be made available in coming weeks.

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