Defence Lawyers Set Up Union.And Threaten to Shut Down Court System; Criminal Bar Protests 'Undemocratic' Cuts to Free Legal Aid

Article excerpt

Byline: Ken Foxe and Beth Rochford

IRELAND'S criminal courts could be brought to a stand-still in a threatened strike by lawyers over cuts to Government-funded Legal Aid fees.

Barristers and solicitors working in criminal law are taking the unprecedented step of creating a union to begin industrial action against the Courts Service.

Most clerical court staff are members of trade unions, meaning they would be unable to pass a picket. The prospect of a strike has raised the very real possibility of one of the most disruptive strikes in decades.

While those involved say industrial action would be a last resort, it would bring the entire criminal justice system to a halt, with many murder, rape and other serious crime cases stalled.

If the courts were unable to sit, those suspected of crimes could not be jailed, and the gardai could be prevented from charging criminals or seeking warrants.

The row facing new Justice Minister Alan Shatter - himself a solicitor - boils down to a restructuring of fees paid to barristers and solicitors under the legal aid system.

Lawyers who provide representation in criminal cases under the scheme have seen their fees cut by almost 30% in the past two years.

Sources familiar with the plan say more than 100 barristers and solicitors, including 'all the top criminal law firms', have already signed up for the union.

The row is imminent, with action due before the courts return in October, when new Department of Justice pay cuts taking 10% from defence lawyers' fees will bite.

Further cuts are thought to be inevitable, and some lawyers predict that they will see a 50% drop on their 2007 earnings, creating a scenario where the best lawyers will work only in prosecution.

Last week an email was circulated to all firms involved in criminal cases suggesting that the only course of action available to angry lawyers is forming a union.

A copy of the email, sent by senior counsel Feargal Kavanagh, said: 'All of you will be aware that a long-standing agreement with the department has recently been unilaterally breached by it, in that it now pays defence counsel 10% less than the prosecution counsel.

'Cuts of this magnitude are unfair and unjust and impose a greater burden on us than any public service sector.'

Speaking to the Irish Mail on Sunday Mr Kavanagh said that in addition to making criminal work the worst paid work for barristers it calls into question citizens' rights.

'The principal issue we have is the break with parity - in other words for the defence. If you're an accused person your lawyers are going to get paid 10% less than the those working for the State.

'It's manifestly dangerous from the democracy point of view.'

Mr Kavanagh said: 'If the fees paid under the criminal legal aid scheme are reduced any further the results will be catastrophic for everyone except those who wish to be able to wield power unjustly and with impunity in the future.'

He added that the cuts had been 'kept carefully under the public radar'. …