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Justice Minister firm on barristers' legal aid fees

12 May 10 08:30 GMT

Barristers involved in legal aid work in NI have been told they must be more realistic about their fees.

Justice minister David Ford has said he will go ahead with plans to cut millions of pounds from the legal aid

A number of barristers have withdrawn from court cases recently, arguing that fees of more than £150 an hour are not enough.

Legal aid is paid by the government on behalf of those who cannot afford lawyers themselves.

The Court Service, which foots the bill, says the cost in Northern Ireland is too high.

It says the cost has doubled during the past decade, and this year is expected to be £94m.

Savings

The cost is around 20% more expensive per head of population than in England and Wales.

The court service has introduced a new maximum fee of £152.50 an hour for preparation work in what are called "very high cost cases" - down from £180 an hour.

The barristers' ruling body, the Bar Council is opposed to the reduction, and argues that cutting fees will damage the criminal justice system.

During the past week, barristers have withdrawn their services from three cases.

Chair of the Bar Council Adrian Colton QC said he accepted that barristers cannot be immune from the inevitable cuts in public spending.

"What we are lobbying for is an overall scheme which will provide for payments in all criminal cases in Northern Ireland," he added.

"One of the biggest concerns that I have is that now that justice has been devolved to Northern Ireland, it's a great pity we are introducing wholesale the England and Wales schemes to NI.

"What we need to achieve is a scheme that meets the needs of Northern Ireland and which comes in within budget."

Mr Ford has insisted that savings have to be made to avoid cutting funding for other public services like hospitals and schools.

In an interview with the BBC, the justice minister said barristers needed to be more realistic about the financial circumstances facing the assembly.

He said most people would regard the new fees as a reasonably generous rate of pay.

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