4 December 2011
The Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence is disappointed to learn of plans by members of the Criminal Law Practitioners Organisation, a newly formed body (September, 2011) representing Barristers and Solicitors practising in the Criminal Law Courts; to take strike action and disrupt proceedings in the Criminal Law Courts on December 8, 2011.
The Minister is surprised to learn that the Criminal Law Practitioners Organisation intend to take such strike action. In their initial contact with the Minister in late September last, the organisation expressed concern that the principle of parity in relation to legal fees would no longer apply to lawyers representing both the prosecution and the defence following the 10% reduction in fees payable to criminal legal aid lawyers. This concern proved groundless following the DPP a few days later taking action to reduce fees payable to the prosecution in line with fees payable to Criminal Legal Aid Lawyers.
Until the formation of the Criminal Law Practitioners Organisation issues of this nature where addressed by the Department in the context of exchanges with both the Law Society and the Bar Council who are the representative bodies of the legal profession. Although the Criminal Law Practitioners Organisation was only formed in September and the extent of its membership is unclear, the Minister has agreed to meet the Criminal Law Practitioners Organisation but has explained that he cannot arrange a meeting until after the budget when the funding allocation for the Justice area for 2012 and subsequent years is known.
Their announcement to take strike action two days after the budget is in the circumstances surprising. There are currently approximately 2000 solicitors and 850 barristers on the respective panels under the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme. It is the duty of lawyers appointed under the scheme to properly represent defendants in court proceedings and lawyers have very particular duties as officers of the court. There would appear to be sufficient capacity on the panels to provide adequate representation to Criminal Legal Aid clients and the Minister expects that those on the Criminal Legal Aid panel will comply with their professional obligations
A sum of €56 million was spent on the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme in 2010. Under the original funding allocated in the December 2010 budget for Criminal Legal Aid an amount of €47million was made available by the Department of Finance to the Department of Justice for 2011. It is estimated that the out turn in 2011 on the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme will come to a sum in excess of €57million, €10 million more than the amount made available by the Department of Finance for 2011. This additional expense has had to be met from other sectors within the Justice area for which 2011 funding was provided.
The Minister in response to correspondence from the Criminal Law Practitioners Organisation has explained the current financial position and that the expenditure on Criminal Legal Aid in 2012 will have to be substantially less than the 2011 spend having regard to the current expenditure reduction that must be effected across all Government Departments. As is well known, the overall budget deficit must be reduced by 3.8 billion euro in 2012 and the Justice sector is not immune from the savings that must be effected pursuant to the State's obligations under the EU/IMF agreement so that the State can ultimately recover its economic sovereignty. It is extraordinary that in such circumstances that any group of lawyers should decide to go on strike on Thursday next. The Minister has invited the Criminal Law Practitioners Organisation to furnish to him their proposals for reducing the cost of Criminal Legal Aid whilst continuing to ensure that the rights of alleged offenders are properly protected. To date, the Criminal Law Practitioners Organisation have failed to furnish to the Minister any substantive response to this request.
The threatened withdrawal of services seems to apply only to defence lawyers operating under the criminal legal aid scheme. It is difficult to fathom the logic of a withdrawal of services in respect of defence practitioners alone when counsel for both defence and prosecution are paid the same rates. It remains the Minister's hope that having given the matter further consideration the CLPO will call off its proposed strike