Barristers seek to postpone proposed fee cuts

 

THE BAR Council has appealed to Minister for Justice Alan Shatter to postpone changes in the criminal legal aid scheme until October so that discussions on alternative means of cost-saving can take place.

Two weeks ago, the secretary general of the Department of Justice, Seán Aylward, wrote to the council and the Law Society announcing that fees for defence counsel would be reduced by 10 per cent. This would end the parity between the payment of defence and prosecution counsel, following a strike in the 1970s which resulted in a statutory instrument introducing the parity.

This reduction follows reductions of 3 per cent, 8 per cent and a further 8 per cent over the past three years.

Bar Council director Jerry Carroll said in his letter to Mr Shatter that the system of parity, introduced in 1976, ensured that people accused of serious crimes had available to them counsel of the same expertise and experience as the prosecution.

This has also meant criminal law practitioners could and did act for both the prosecution and the defence in different cases.

The system is “regarded by the Bar Council as a fundamental cornerstone of a person’s constitutional right to legal representation in a criminal trial”, Mr Carroll said. “The unilateral uncoupling of the defence level of remuneration from that of the prosecution will distort and damage this equal representation.”

Initial cuts of 10 per cent to fees in general and a proposed cut of 50 per cent in adjournment sentence fees could be followed, whenever expedient, by more reductions further undermining the capacity of an accused to obtain representation equal to that of the prosecution, he said.

Michael O’Higgins SC, of the Criminal Lawyers Association, said a further 20 per cent cut next year was proposed, which would broaden the gap with prosecution counsel to 30 per cent. “Taking the cuts up to now and the universal social charge of 6 per cent, work worth a euro in 2008 is worth 54 cents now.”

He said it was true the global figure for spending on criminal legal aid had not fallen significantly, but this was because of an increase in the number of cases.

Asked how costs could be reduced, Brendan Grehan SC, of the council’s criminal law committee, said trials could be shortened and the number of issues in dispute reduced, but this would involve discussions with the DPP and the judiciary.