Cases delayed as lawyers take action over legal aid

 

SOME CASES will be unable to proceed in the Criminal Courts of Justice in Dublin today due to a withdrawal of services by members of the newly formed Criminal Law Practitioners Organisation.

The group, which comprises solicitors and barristers practising criminal law, is opposing further cuts to criminal legal aid.

However, the action may be halted by an injunction from the Competition Authority, which has written to the group warning it the action on fees by a group of self-employed practitioners may infringe competition law.

Dara Robinson of Garrett Sheehan and Partners, a firm specialising in criminal law, said the group was seeking an urgent meeting with Minister for Justice Alan Shatter to explain the impact of the cuts on service quality and to discuss ways of improving efficiency of the criminal law system while reducing costs.

Asked to respond to the authority, he said: “We do not see this as a competition law issue.”

He said Italian criminal lawyers had received a derogation from EU competition law to negotiate fees with their government.

“We provide a public service as private practitioners,” he said. “The Department of Justice has acknowledged that we are under-remunerated . . . The spend per capita on legal aid is far lower here than in Northern Ireland, England or Scotland. Fees have been cut by between 30 and 40 per cent. These cuts threaten the quality of the service we deliver.”

He said there were other ways of saving money and added that former director of public prosecutions James Hamilton had indicated earlier this year the annual bill for Garda overtime for cases that do not go on in court exceeded the total paid by his office for prosecuting counsel.

At the annual prosecutors’ conference in July Mr Hamilton said the overtime bill in cases that do not go on was €17 million. He said he spent €15 million last year on the 158 counsel briefed by his office.

The action is not supported by the Bar Council or Law Society.