Tuesday 25 July 2017

Disorder in court after lawyers walk out over planned legal aid cuts

Colm Kelpie and Dearbhail McDonald

SOME 120 cases before the courts were adjourned yesterday after lawyers staged a walkout in protest over planned cuts to the criminal legal aid bill.

Justice Minister Alan Shatter accused the striking solicitors and barristers of living in a parallel universe.

The Courts Service said in cases where the defendant was in custody, or custody was an issue, proceedings went ahead.

But remand cases and those listed for mention in the court list were adjourned.

Mr Shatter said the legal profession was not immune from the savings that have to be made to the public purse.

"I find it extraordinary in the context of the financial circumstances that the state finds itself, that individuals who have the opportunity to earn income through the legal aid system should take the type of action that some barristers have taken," Mr Shatter said.

"I believe it's grossly irresponsible. I don't think it does anything to increase the reputation of the legal profession."

The withdrawal of services at the Criminal Courts of Justice had been called by the Criminal Law Practitioners Organisation (CLPO), a new coalition of barristers and solicitors.

Some €47m was set aside for criminal legal aid in Budget 2011, but it is estimated that €57m would have been spent by the end of the year. Mr Shatter said the €10m would have to be clawed back. Mr Shatter said he had agreed to meet the CLPO but told them he could not do so until after Budget.

"Those complaining about reductions in the criminal legal aid fees apparently live in some parallel universe in which they think they're immune from some of the savings that must be incurred," he said on RTE.

Mr Shatter said that in September the CLPO wrote to him claiming that there was no longer parity in pay between those representing defendants, and those for the prosecution, as fees from legal aid lawyers had been reduced by 10pc.

Disruption

Mr Shatter said the Director of Public Prosecutions responded by reducing fees for prosecution lawyers to bring them in line.

The controversial strike has divided the legal profession, with the ruling bodies for solicitors and barristers refusing to endorse the action.

Critically, however, it had the support of all the major criminal law firms in the capital.

The Bar Council opposed the strike, with its chairman Paul O'Higgins saying that while he shared the frustration, he believed it was not the way to deal with the issue.

There are currently around 2,000 solicitors and 850 barristers taking part in the criminal legal aid scheme.

Dara Robinson, CLPO spokesman, said the strike was "entirely responsible".

"We were making a point to the minister," he said.

Mr Robinson said criminal solicitors and barristers had suffered a cut in fees under the scheme of up to 40pc since the recession began.

Mr Robinson said there was minimal disruption to clients as the strike had been flagged up with some judges in advance.

The Courts Service said matters before the Court of Criminal Appeal, Central Criminal Court, High Court extradition hearings and Special Criminal court all proceeded.

Irish Independent

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