Unpaid Irish defence counsel threaten to leave state scheme

Defence counsel in Ireland are threatening to withdraw from the state-run criminal legal aid scheme because of delays of up to two years in getting payment from the Department of Justice.

According to one barrister, who protested publicly in court on the issue, in some cases no payments have been made at all. He said that the problem was peculiar to defence barristers – those acting for the Director of Public Prosecutions usually received a cheque within six weeks of the case.

The delays are causing “serious financial hardship” to some of the 150 counsel who specialise in the work, according to Irish Bar Council director John Dowling.

“These are people in their late 30s and early 40s, with families and mortgages,” he said. “If they do not get paid on time for the work they do, then they cannot pay their bills.”

Now the Bar Council is trying to agree on a more streamlined payments system with the Department of Justice before the threatened withdrawal from the scheme is implemented.

The dispute could frustrate plans to reduce the backlog in criminal trials by introducing shorter summer holidays in the courts. Instead of the traditional October start to the new term, three judges will be available to deal with criminal cases in the last two weeks of September.

But if the row over late payments has not been resolved by then, some of the defence counsel could be absent.