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Court refuses to quash 2015 legal aid rules despite finding two aspects of decision-making process unlawful.

Court delivers judgment in legal aid dispute

On 13th November Mr Justice Maguire found in favour of the Bar Council and the Law Society of Northern Ireland on two of the grounds of their judicial review challenge to the Legal Aid for Crown Court Proceedings (Costs) (Amendment) Rules (NI) 2015 (‘the 2015 Rules’).  The 2015 Rules were introduced by the Department of Justice (DoJ) in May and represented a significant reduction to the levels of remuneration payable to solicitors and barristers for criminal legal aid cases in the Crown Court.

The Court found that the fee arrangements for solicitors, in respect of work done between arraignment and the first day of trial in a case in which their legally aided client pleads guilty within that time frame, do not amount to fair remuneration.  The other successful ground of challenge concerned impact assessments in respect of the proposals leading to the 2015 Rules.  The Court held that there was a legitimate expectation on the part of the applicants that not only would impact assessments be done by DoJ but they would be done properly.  The judge commented that there ought to have been full assessments of the economic, rural and regulatory impact:

'This leads the Court to the conclusion that a procedural impropriety has occurred in this area.  If thorough impact assessments had been carried out, these may have benefited the decision-making process, as it can be seen that the area of the impact of the proposals was a heavily contested one where evidence was thin on the ground.’

However, the Court rejected claims that the consultation process was carried out with a preordained outcome and that ministerial irrationality had been established.  The 2015 Rules were not quashed as the Court considered that to be a ‘disproportionate reaction’.  Instead the Court gave declaratory relief being ‘confident that the Department (DoJ) would seek to rectify the state of affairs without any need for any coercive action on the part of the Court.

The Law Society of Northern Ireland said that the judgment will be carefully considered before responding in full. 

To read an article from the BBC click here

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Legal Aid