| 25.5°C Dublin

Wealthy lawyers in strike threat on fees

SOME have become millionaires out of the State and others are now threatening strike action over cuts to fees.

The State is the biggest employer of barristers and solicitors in the country -- and now wants a better deal.

But plans to cut the €54m criminal legal aid bill could spark a strike by criminal law barristers and paralyse Ireland's criminal courts.

Senior Counsel who take on a 'brief', or case, currently receive a fee of €7,919 for a murder case in the Central Criminal Court. After that, they get a daily 'refresher' fee of €1,736.

Under the EU/IMF bailout, Ireland has given a commitment to remove restrictions to competition in the legal, medical and pharmacy professions by the end of September.

The possibility of a strike by criminal law barristers was discussed at a packed meeting last month in the Criminal Courts of Justice. Reports claimed barristers and solicitors were considering the unprecedented step of forming a union to start industrial action against the Courts Service.

It has raised the possibility of one of the most disruptive strikes in decades, bringing the criminal justice system to a halt, with many murder, rape and serious crime cases stalled.

Most clerical court staff working at the Criminal Courts of Justice are members of trade unions and would be unable to pass a picket.

But it is a protest which would get little public support. Some barristers have become millionaires out of State fees, particularly in tribunals.

The State is also the biggest employer of defence lawyers and prosecutors.

While those involved say industrial action would be a last resort, Justice Minister Alan Shatter is on a collision course with lawyers over the restructuring of fees paid under the legal aid system. Lawyers who provide representation in criminal cases have seen their fees cut by 30pc in the last two years.

More than 100 barristers and solicitors, "including all the top criminal law firms," have already been signed up for the union, it was claimed today.

The row is imminent, with action due before the courts return in October when new Department of Justice cuts, taking 10pc from defence lawyers fees, are due.

Last week an email was circulated to all firms specialising in criminal cases suggesting that the only course of action available to lawyers was in forming a union.

Reports said that a copy of the email, sent by senior counsel Feargal Kavanagh, said: "All of you will be aware that a long -standing agreement with the department has recently been unilaterally breached by it, in that it now pays defence counsel 10pc less than the prosecution counsel. The Department of Justice said fees cuts were necessary due to "the difficult economic situation".