Courts in the Balance; State-Funded Lawyers' Strike on 10% Cut Puts Cases at Risk

Article excerpt

Byline: Senan Molony Political Editor

COURTS face disruption today when a number of lawyers funded by the taxpayer go on strike.

And three solicitors leading the protest against the 10 per cent trimming of the State's Free Legal Aid bill have benefited by millions of euro in recent years.

The action by the newly formed Criminal Law Practitioners' Organisation is expected to affect criminal courts across the country as it represents some of the highest-earning legal briefs. And the hub of cases - the Criminal Courts of Justice in Dublin - is the focus of the action.

Lawyers' representative groups, the Law Society and the Bar Council, have refused to back the move, which Justice Minister Alan Shatter described last night as 'absolutely extraordinary'. He said: 'I am concerned and astounded at this proposal to withdraw services from clients who have been granted criminal legal aid by the courts and assigned legal representation.'

A solicitor being paid under the Free Legal Aid scheme can expect to earn, on average, [euro]400 for each case in the district court. Cases in the higher courts yield much more.

Michael Kelleher, who is one of the lawyers behind the strike action, was paid more than [euro]500,000 per annum in recent years.

He is one of the managing partners in the Kelleher O'Doherty firm and received just over [euro]2million from the Department of Justice for the four years ending last year. Last night, Mr Kelleher said: 'I'm not earning [euro]500,000 - we're all in a firm with overheads.' He referred queries to solicitor Dara Robinson, the spokesman for the organisation.

Solicitor Michael Staines, who is on the CLPO committee, had [euro]4,963,189 paid to his firm, Michael Staines & Co, for his legal work in the same timeframe. Another solicitor understood to be backing the withdrawal of labour, John Quinn, was paid [euro]4,159,209 from the Free Legal Aid fund for representing criminal defendants over four years.

Two other barristers associated with the CLPO, Patrick Marrinan and Feargal Kavanagh, were paid [euro]422,765 (2008-10) and [euro]335,779 (2007-2010) respectively for their work in the courts. All the lawyers named would have private practices in addition to their criminal work on behalf of the State.

It is understood a letter from the CLPO to Mr Shatter's office gave him seven days to meet with the group or face today's strike action.

The Courts Service insisted that scheduled courts were listed to go ahead from 10.30am, with 18 courts due to sit at the 22-court Criminal Courts of Justice at Parkgate Street, next to the Phoenix Park.

Branding the action 'absolutely extraordinary' last night, Mr Shatter told the Dail: 'Until the formation of this new organisation, issues of this nature were addressed by my department in dialogue with the Law Society and the Bar Council.

'When cuts have arisen, both bodies have generally demonstrated the responsible attitude one would expect from the legal profession in these very difficult times.' He added of the CLPO: 'Bearing in mind its leadership comprises some of the highest earners in the criminal legal aid scheme, I have to deplore [the] threat to withdraw services from criminal legal aid clients.' Legal sources last night suggested that defendants left in the lurch today could make a complaint of professional misconduct against a solicitor to the Law Society or against a barrister to the Bar Council. It is an ethical offence for an officer of the court not to represent their assigned client. …