Following the introduction of lower rates of pay for legal aid lawyers in Northern Ireland, hundreds of solicitors have been dropping criminal cases, causing concern amongst prisoners and politicians.
A prisoner in Londonderry, charged with possessing class A drugs, fears that his case will fall apart since his own legal team withdrew.
Patrick Fullerton, 44, told Londonderry Crown Court that he could not afford to phone legal firms asking for representation. He feared he would be forced to find a solicitor who lacked criminal experience, as he said they “will mess up my case”.
Mr Fullerton also stated that other prisoners were concerned about the new legal aid policies and “were very worried about its consequences”.
Mr Fullerton’s case was adjourned by the judge who told him he needed representation since the charges brought against him were so serious.
His is not the only case affected by the new legal aid fees. Northern Irish politician Lord Morrow found that 134 solicitors had withdrawn their services from criminal cases since the new fees came into action.
He said: “I am very fearful; it is a real concern that we could find ourselves in a situation where this dispute leads to cases collapsing.
“This has the potential to cause chaos.”
Justice Minister David Ford, who proposed the lower fees, has been forced to contact solicitors and barristers to discover if any will be willing to work for the new rates. If he is unsuccessful, he may be forced to “go outside Northern Ireland to bring in other lawyers”.
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