Backlog at Craigavon court due to legal aid row

Craigavon Courthouse. INLM06-115gc
Craigavon Courthouse. INLM06-115gc

Craigavon court division has one of the highest incidents of defendants whose lawyers have ‘come off record’ in a dispute over legal fees.

There are 87 cases in the division where lawyers have come off record or defence has been unable to engage counsel due to the legal aid dispute.

Only Belfast and Derry divisions have a higher number of cases.

The row is over new legal aid fees imposed by the Justict Minister David Ford with members of the legal profession opposed to the new regime.

A law lord warned last month that the standoff is ‘significantly disrupting’ the ‘due administration of justice’.

In total there are 629 incidents across all the court divisions.

Of the 87 in Craigavon, most (32) involve defendants facing a combination of charges, while 14 are linked to drug offences, seven to fraud and forgery, another five to sex offences and the rest on varying charges.

One alleged victim of the 60 sexual assault cases currently on hold due to the dispute has told how the continual delays are blighting her life.

After being told the case would be ‘over by Christmas’, the woman faces the ordeal of months ‘on standby’ to give evidence against the person accused of attacking her.

“I am constantly being reminded what’s happened. The process of it means you are reliving it all the time,” she told the Irish News.

She said she is devastated as the case keeps being postponed because barristers won’t work for the new legal aid fees imposed by the Justice Department.

Victim Support NI chief executive Geraldine Hanna said the ‘incessant’ dispute is causing added stress and 

“People’s lives are on hold as the courts come to a standstill with victims being the real casualties of this legal aid dispute. One of the basic principles of democracy is access to speedy justice. The current system is not operating as such and is failing society.”

The Criminal Bar Association said it ‘strongly believes that all members of society must have access to justice’, but is determined that ‘legal aid does not become a second class service or become permanently out of reach for deserving individuals’.

“We are committed to ensuring that the process is fair, efficient and effective for victims as well as witnesses and defendants. This can only be achieved through the provision of quality representation.”

The Justice Department said it would bring forward proposals as ‘a matter of urgency’ but warned ‘the court upheld the Crown Court Rules [so there is] no need for the legal profession no to return to normal working’.