Barristers’ pay dispute threat to care services

The public body which runs Northern Ireland’s multi-million pound legal aid scheme has admitted that a three-month dispute with family barristers over pay could begin to affect care services for vulnerable children.

Relations between the Legal Services Commission (LSC) and the Bar Council appear to have hit an all-time low with family barristers accusing the LSC of creating a “two tier” justice system and the LSC accusing the Family Bar of not acting in clients’ interests.

In January family barristers withdrew their services in Family Care Centre cases — which deals with a small number of complex family cases — sparking fears that serious child protection cases are being disrupted because of the fallout.

Despite several meetings between negotiating teams no breakthrough in the dispute has been forthcoming. The LSC has insisted it is working “intensively” to produce a package of fees to renumerate barristers and solicitors that is “fair and reasonable”.

LSC chairman Jim Daniell stressed that children are not immediately at risk and that “nothing in this dispute would prevent Social Services from acting to protect a child at risk”.

He warned however that if not soon resolved the dispute “could potentially begin to have an impact on the ability of organisations to plan for the care of children in the future”.

The dispute mainly centres around the level of additional payments for barristers in complex family cases.

The LSC says extra payments should only be made when there is evidence of attendance in court and therefore “properly validated”. The Bar believes this would not remunerate barristers for work outside of formal court proceedings.

The Bar has also objected to Commission plans to review fee structures. There had also been anger over a seven-year delay in payments to barristers in some family cases. The LSC said this issue has been resolved.

Mr Daniell told the Belfast Telegraph that the LSC has made an offer to the Bar Council based on proposals the Bar made in July.

“We are very disappointed that despite the offer the Family Bar is refusing to accept briefs in Family Care Centre cases,” he added.

The Legal Services Commission however has been accused of not placing the same high priority on dealing with Family Care Centre fees as the Family Bar Association (FBA) does and the FBA has expressed “frustration” over the length of time being taken by the LSC and Court Service “to consider crucial issues”.

A memo from a senior FBA member to members, seen by the Telegraph, states: “The current situation is frustrating and this frustration is increased by the time being taken by the LSC and Court Service to consider crucial issues.”

A FBA source has claimed that “very serious cases affecting families are being delayed in the courts at this time because of an absence of proper legal aid funding by the LSC”.

The source added: “ The delay on behalf of the LSC has led to a two tier justice system, where those who can afford to pay … get full and proper representation of both solicitors and barristers but those who cannot afford to pay do not get the same service.

“This problem has been ignored for too long.”

Nobody from the Family Bar Association was available to make an official comment.