DPP tells Lenihan of 'concern' over 8pc cut in lawyers' fees
THE Director of Public Prosecutions has written to Finance Minister Brian Lenihan expressing his "serious concern" about the impact of a planned 8 per cent cut to lawyers' fees.
DPP James Hamilton wrote to Mr Lenihan in recent weeks following high-level talks with the Bar Council and bilateral talks between his office and the Department of Finance, the Irish Independent has learned.
The Bar Council, the representative body for barristers, has also written to Mr Lenihan protesting that the aggregate 22pc reduction in fees was disproportionate compared with cuts in state payments borne by other professions.
In his annual report, Mr Hamilton acknowledged "the spirit" in which prosecutors had accepted cuts of some 14pc, a figure which could escalate to as high as 27pc once the extra 8pc is levied and certain schemes are included.
It is understood Mr Hamilton told Mr Lenihan that there was "merit" in the Bar Council's submissions.
He also expressed concern about the magnitude of the cuts and its impact on the level of service that would be provided in the prosecution of serious crime if the trend in cuts continued.
Mr Hamilton also acknowledged the requirement by all government departments and offices to implement budgetary cuts and highlighted a series of services provided for free by barristers such as written submissions to the Court of Criminal Appeal.
The chairman of the Bar Council, Senior Counsel Michael Collins, last night confirmed he had written to Mr Lenihan about the cuts, which will have a knock-on effect throughout the criminal justice system as all criminal legal-aid fees are set by reference to the DPP's scale.
"The (planned) cuts are significantly more than any other profession for reasons that are not yet clear," Mr Collins said.
"We have a limited power to do anything and have little choice as the State is the exclusive employer here as it pays both the prosecution and defence."
The Government is seeking to reduce the State's criminal legal-aid bill, which increased last year by €4.5m to €57.5m -- a sum that is dwarfed by payments to lawyers working for NAMA, estimated at €160m a year for 10 years -- by slashing legal fees, means-testing suspects and tendering for legal aid work.
The Irish Independent has also learned the Government is being briefed on a series of high-level talks in Northern Ireland where criminal lawyers have threatened to walk away from murder, rape and very high-cost cases. It is feared the newly agreed devolution of justice programme could be jeopardised if barristers withdraw their services.
Ireland comes bottom of a league of 37 European countries in terms of the proportion of the public budget that is allocated to the courts, criminal prosecution and legal aid, spending 0.10pc of per capita GDP compared with 0.35pc in England and Wales and 0.58pc in Northern Ireland.