Northern Ireland

No mechanism to increase budget for lawyers in NI, Stormont department says

The powersharing institutions in Northern Ireland have not been operating for more than a year (PA)
The powersharing institutions in Northern Ireland have not been operating for more than a year (PA)

The powersharing impasse in Northern Ireland means there is no mechanism to increase the budget for the legal profession, a Stormont department has said.

The Department of Justice (DoJ) also said that any withdrawal of services by criminal barristers in the region risks “adversely impacting” those who need legal representation.

The department said it cannot do anything to resolve a dispute with lawyers over delays in payments in publicly funded legal aid cases.

Barrister stock
Criminal barristers in Northern Ireland will be balloted over a withdrawal of services (PA)

Criminal barristers will be balloted over withdrawing their services in protest against what the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) said is a six-month delay for payment in some cases.

The CBA said its members will take part in a day of action in November which will impact all criminal courts in Northern Ireland.

Powersharing in Northern Ireland is not operating due to a DUP protest over post-Brexit trading arrangements and Stormont departments are facing significant budgetary pressures.

A DoJ spokesperson said: “We fully appreciate the challenges faced by the legal profession and agree that the current budget provision is insufficient.

“We have made this point to the profession on a number of occasions and continue to have open dialogue with the Bar of Northern Ireland on a wide range of issues, including budgetary pressures.

“However, in the current political situation, there is no mechanism open to us to increase the budget.”

The spokesperson added: “We continue to ensure colleagues in Department of Finance are aware of the pressures, and met with them as recently as Friday to discuss this.

“In this context, we feel that, while sympathetic to the frustration of the profession, any form of action is premature.

“It risks adversely impacting those who need legal representation at a time when the Department of Justice cannot do anything to resolve the issue.”

The CBA had said it had been calling for urgent action from the department for months over payment delays and said the public policy of “speeding up justice and increasing throughput requires an increased budget”.

It said “no tangible solutions have been offered by the DoJ”.

A CBA spokesperson added: “Criminal barristers are committed professionals who work on the most serious and difficult of cases.

“The criminal justice system depends on these lawyers to apply their time and skill in the best interests of their clients and broader society.

“The barristers who provide these legal services in Northern Ireland are often facing intolerable cash-flow pressures that their counterparts in other UK regions do not have to endure.

“It is a matter of regret that, as part of a range of measures to be taken in response to this crisis in our legal aid system, criminal barristers have felt compelled to consider a withdrawal of their services.”