Senior barristers applying for ‘hardship grant' over legal aid dispute
NORTHERN Ireland's most senior barristers say they have had to apply to a `hardship fund', with the number of cases stalled in the courts due to the legal aid dispute now topping 900.
The dispute between barristers and the Department of Justice (DoJ) is now in its ninth month and criminal cases - including murder, rape and other violent crime - continue to back up in the courts.
The Irish News has obtained official figures which reveal that there are now 903 cases languishing as a result of the impasse.
Both sides have been warned that victims and witnesses are the "forgotten casualties" of long-running stand-off, with those already traumatised by crime having their lives "put on hold" as they await a resolution.
Both sides are now in the early stage of agreeing terms for mediation, but the Irish News understands that a number of outstanding issues - including choice of mediator - are still being negotiated, with meetings taking place every day this week.
Victim Support NI chief executive, Geraldine Hanna, said the charity has "little hope of a speedy resolution".
"Victims, witnesses and their families are the real casualties of this dispute with 903 criminal cases affected by this fallout to date," she said.
"It is causing great distress and anxiety for so many but it appears these victims have been forgotten in the midst of this.
"As citizens living in a democracy, we deserve access to a speedy justice system - presently this is not the case with courts at a standstill and victims are caught in the crossfire.
"We are also seriously concerned about the reverberations of this dispute in months to come as courts, in the face of closures, will have to deal with a huge backlog of cases with diminished resources."
Barristers have been refusing since May 2015 to take on cases in the criminal court for new legal aid tariffs brought in for barristers by the Department of Justice.
Criminal barrister Michael Forde said the issue is "not just about fees", but the quality of future representation for "vulnerable defendants" and witness and victims seeking quality justice.
"The criminal bar is willing to compromise in relation to the fee paid, but not on the professional service that we provide," he said.
Mr Forde said members had sought other work in family, civil and employment, but said there was not enough work in those areas for everyone.
"Last year 70 members of the Bar left - that's 10 per cent, usually across every year membership goes up.
"There is a long-standing hardship fund for barrister experiencing difficulties paying subscriptions to the Bar Library, usually only members of the Young Bar (recently qualified) who subscribe to that.
"However, as a consequence of the ongoing impasse, senior practitioners - up to QC level - have had to apply," he said.
Justice Minister David Ford said "urgent" arrangements are being made for mediation and said he is "very aware of the negative impact that the barristers' withdrawal of services is having on all those involved".
"In the meantime, I encourage all members of the legal profession to re-engage in defending their clients to ensure that they receive the appropriate access to justice that they are entitled to."