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Law lord urges end to legal dispute as backlog of cases nears 1,000 - The Irish News
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Law lord urges end to legal dispute as backlog of cases nears 1,000

Lord Justice Weir warned defendants are worried and upset that they have no counsel in court

MURDERS, rapes and terror offences are among up to 1,000 Crown Court cases that have ground to a halt in an escalating dispute over legal aid payments.

The backlog has become so serious that a senior law lord has intervened, warning the stand-off between barristers and the department of justice is "significantly disrupting" the "due administration of justice".

Lord Justice Reg Weir's intervention follows weeks of "empty courts", with stalled cases unable to proceed and Crown Court judges reassigned to the civil and family courts to keep busy.

Members of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) have been refusing to "accept instruction" from solicitors for Crown Court cases since the imposition by Justice Minister David Ford of a defence fee reduction in May.

CBA chairman Gavan Duffy claimed on Friday that 868 defendants had been committed to the Crown Court since the new fees were introduced and that figure was "rising by approximately 150 per month".

"By the end of the year it is likely to have reached 1,000 cases and could easily top 2,000 by the summer," he warned.

He also warned that if the delays in trials - some of the most serious to come before the courts - grow too great they could be "stayed permanently", meaning some serious cases, may never be heard in a court of law.

On Friday, it emerged a similar move in August by the director of public prosecution Barra McGrory on its lawyers' fees has led barristers also cease "all but courtesy work".

Lord Justice Weir made a formal statement on the matter on Friday before he began the business of going through the cases before him in the Criminal Justice Review List.

The senior judge said while Crown Court judges "know nothing about the detail" of the disagreement and it was not "any concern of the courts", it has led to "a significant and growing backlog".

"Defendants charged with what are often serious offences are unable to access the expert legal advice that they require in order to prepare their defences and are, quite understandably, unable to proceed without that advice," he said.

Lord Justice Weir warned that it has got to a stage where there will be "continuing delay" even if a resolution is reached.

"The defendants and all others interested in the outcome of these trials are understandably increasingly concerned at the delay," he said.

"Some have told me when they have had to appear here unrepresented that they are worried and upset that their cases remain unresolved but feel, and I think reasonably, that they could not adequately present their own cases without adequate legal representation...

"I should... like to appeal to all parties to this disagreement to do their very best to bring the matter to an early conclusion so that in everyone's interest the Crown courts may quickly resume the effective dispatch of their most important business which the ongoing disagreement is significantly disrupting."

Upon being informed of the recent decision by prosecution counsel, Lord Justice Weir said it was "the first I have heard of this" and he would have to "tell my colleagues about it".

A spokeswoman for the Lord Chief Justice said Sir Declan Morgan was "fully aware of the significant and growing backlog in legally aided Crown Court cases and is closely monitoring the situation".

She said he "supports" his colleague's view that the both sides must try to resolve things as soon as possible.


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