Criminal Law Practitioners Union in the works

People often gripe about the free legal aid system but, to my mind, it’s part of the price we pay for the Republic and its Constitution, which

seek[s] to promote the common good, with due observance of Prudence, Justice and Charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured [and] true social order attained.

Some people don’t like that the system exists at all. Others dislike the cost. A small number of lawyers make a lot of money from the legal aid budget, but they tend to work exclusively in criminal defence. And they work hard: criminal defence is far less profitable than many other areas of law, including areas that consume far greater amounts of taxpayer funding.

An email has been circulated among criminal defence lawyers proposing a Criminal Law Practitioners Union (CLPU) to lobby and negotiate with the Government on the system of criminal free legal aid. The email says that, when the next round of cuts are implemented, the fees paid for criminal legal aid will have been cut by up to 50% of their 2007 level.

Cuts of this magnitude will put a large number of [criminal legal aid lawyers] out of practice and seriously undermine the fair and proper administration of justice in criminal law. Cuts of this magnitude are unfair and unjust and impose a greater burden on us than on any other ‘public service sector’.

Two points are involved here: the public interest argument and the private interest argument. The latter doesn’t interest me and will not find much sympathy with the public. But this issue is not about incomes: lawyers are also professionals who want to represent their clients’ interests, not just in court but before they reach it.

For example: it has long been the practice of the Department of Justice to pay defence counsel the same fee as the prosecution. Equality of arms is an important principle, but the Department recently abolished it for criminal trials and imposed a 10% cut on fees paid to defence counsel (ie. 10% less than what is paid to prosecution counsel by the Director of Public Prosecutions). [Edit: I agree with this letter-writer to the Irish Times. Cuts should be equal.]

Quite obviously the only reason that we are very much the ‘poor relations’ in the courts system is because our clients are voiceless and so are we. (My emphasis)

The email points to an interesting comparison which contextualises the legal aid budget: the legal aid budget is around €57 million annually, whereas the annual bill for legal fees for a single State agency, the HSE, is around €30 million. Up to May 2011, Arthur Cox had earned over €11 million advising the Government on the banking crisis alone.

The email seeks support for the CLPU to negotiate terms and conditions of a contract with the Department of Justice for legally aided criminal defence. I would expect that the CLPU will run into competition law issues but the email states that nothing will be done to distort competition.

The email suggests a picket on the courts as a final measure to protest further cuts. This will inevitably be the focus of headlines and the move would be reported by the media as a strike to protect the income of lawyers, rather than a strike to protect the interests of justice. A serious public interest issue is at stake and is unlikely to receive the quality of discussion and debate regularly achieved in the UK.

(As I finalised this blog post, this article published on the Evening Herald website. The headline provides a taste of the tone of coverage to come.)

The timeframe for action is tight, and apparently over 100 lawyers have already indicated an intention to join the CLPU (around 30 of whom are solicitors).

In the meantime, it remains unclear what has become of the last government’s mad proposal to move responsibility for the criminal legal aid system to the Legal Aid Board. However, Brendan Howlin’s Ideas Campaign-style search for solutions has apparently generated the suggestion that inexperienced law graduates “be deployed” to the legal aid system.

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4 thoughts on “Criminal Law Practitioners Union in the works

  1. Hi,

    I’m a 2nd year barrister who is very interested in doing defence criminal law on the Eastern Circuit this year. I disagree very strongly with the cuts in defence lawyers fees and the potential loss of representation for some of the most disadvantaged clients in the country.

    I would be very interested in joing a campaign against the cuts and the further marginalisation of poor, disadvantaged people who get in trouble witht the law.

  2. Interesting reading!

    I am a Canadian lawyer, with 30 years experience, and my practice consists of criminal defence work almost exclusively on legal aid.

    There is a confrontation developing in my Province (British Columbia) over rates paid to defence counsel on the legal aid tariff. Here, prosecutors and defence counsel are NOT paid equally with the latter receiving, in some cases, less than half that of a prosecutor. Between 1991 and 2005 the legal aid tariff has been reduced by approximately 20% while judges salaries have increased, on average, 50% and prosecutors 19-37%.

    Of course there is no sympathy here for our cause simply because there is little to be gained, politically, for the government to deal with us. Please accept my support for your actions. It is comforting to see that we are not alone.

  3. Interesting to get a foreign perspective. The story has moved on since this blogpost, however, and parity has been restored with regard to fees paid to prosecution and defence (for now) (http://url.ie/dp62).

    In addition, the Criminal Law Practitioners Organisation held a “strike” last week (http://url.ie/dp63). However, neither professional representative bodies (the Law Society & Bar Council) support the action and I understand that the Competition Authority has written to the CLPO threatening to seek an injunction preventing action (http://url.ie/dp65).

    Anecdotally, I think there is little support among the many practitioners who are not members of the CLPO and even high profile criminal defence lawyers are critical of its actions. In addition, it is hard to see how the CLPO can do anything without offending Irish competition law and I think action by the Competition Authority is inevitable.

    The arguments of the CLPO are valid ones but, in light of the economic conditions in Ireland and the prevailing public and media attitudes to the legal professions, the organisation was always going to be seen as a lobby group for lawyers rather than defendants.

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