Kevin Winters quits major crime cases

19 May 2015

The largest law firm in Northern Ireland has withdrawn from all major criminal cases in a protest against new rules reducing the level of legal aid payments.

The BBC can also reveal that solicitors and barristers are to take Justice Minister David Ford to court in an attempt to have the new rules declared illegal.

It is a development that could have a profound impact on the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland.

In court in Belfast on Tuesday, a man facing sexual assault charges was remanded in custody.

But at that point his solicitor told the judge he would not be applying for legal aid to represent his client, or to appoint a senior and junior barrister.

Instead, solicitor Joe McVeigh said he would no longer be involved in the case as part of protest against new legal aid rules and reduced fees introduced earlier this month.

Mr McVeigh told the court that the new legal aid rules were "a cynical and vicious attack" on defence lawyers by the Department of Justice.

He said the latest round of cuts would result in defence teams not being able to properly represent those charged with the most serious crimes.

He then announced that the law firm, Kevin Winters & Company - the largest in Northern Ireland - was withdrawing from all of the most serious criminal cases.

The statement was greeted by applause from other solicitors in the court.

Kevin Winters & Company last year carried out more legal aid work than any other law firm in Northern Ireland and received payments of just over £2m.

It has now said that it will refuse to act in the most complex and serious criminal cases.

Those are the cases where legal aid fees have been highest and where the greatest cuts have been made.

Mr McVeigh said: "We can't resource these cases, these extremely difficult cases, extremely involved cases, for the fees that have been set out by the Department of Justice.

"Wider society demands that the innocent are acquitted and convictions are safe. What the Department of Justice proposes in terms of resources can deliver neither.

"The law society, not just clients, require us to do work to a certain level of professionalism. What seems to be coming out of Stormont is: 'Well, actually we'd prefer you just to do it to the bare minimum', but we can't do these cases to the bare minimum, that's unprofessional conduct."

A short distance from the court, solicitors from throughout Northern Ireland gathered for a special meeting in the offices of their governing body to discuss their response to the new rules.

The bar council, which represents barristers, also met on Tuesday. It is understood a large number of its members support withdrawing their services.

Both groups say the new rules undermine their ability to do their jobs.

The justice minister, David Ford, says his new legal aid rules are essential and fair.

Solicitors and barristers disagree, but they also go much further. they claim the new rules are actually illegal.

Now, in an unprecedented move, the Law Society and bar council are joining forces to take legal action.

They are taking the minister to court in an attempt to have his new rules overturned.


Kevin Winters quits major crime cases