Lawyers are set to demand fee hikes for representing free legal aid clients in the criminal courts — just as the justice minister plans to tighten up the scheme and perhaps even disband it.
Solicitors and barristers say the cuts they absorbed in the recession make it unviable to continue participation in the scheme. They say the cuts were accepted on the understanding they would be restored when the economy recovered.
Law Society director general Ken Murphy said solicitors’ fees were cut by 28.5% over four successive cuts from 2009 to 2011. “We recognised the disastrous state of the public finances at the time and reluctantly, but public-spiritedly accepted the cuts without protest, but we did so on the basis that when the public finances improved those cuts would have to be restored. We don’t expect full restoration of all cuts overnight, but it has to commence.”
The Bar of Ireland said barristers took cuts of 28.5% to 69%, while working with the Court Service, Department of Justice, and others to streamline criminal trials .
The department said: “There are no plans at present to revise fees paid to practitioners under the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme.” The department is looking at making further savings in the running costs of the scheme, despite the annual bill falling from €60m in 2009 to €47m last year.
The Programme for Government pledges to clamp down on potential abuses by introducing “a more rigorous and objective means testing process” for legal aid applicants with sanctions for abuse.
It also pledges to consider a public defender system.
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