CRIMINAL lawyers in Northern Ireland have reported a sharp surge in drug-related work and an equivalent downturn in Diplock court cases as the IRA ceasefire reshapes the pattern of their legal work.
Solicitors say drug dealers have moved onto the estates of Belfast as the paramilitaries have discontinued “punishment” of criminals.
The number of hearings at the special non-jury Diplock courts – reserved for sectarian crimes – have simultaneously dried to a trickle as paramilitary cases dwindle.
Spokesman for the Solicitors' Criminal Bar Association Pearse MacDermott said: “You get the feeling the drug-related thing is the way it is moving.
“We have noticed an increase in drugs-related offences. Without paramilitaries there, drugs seem to have flourished. There are a large number of possession with intent to supply charges coming up.”
He added that Diplock work was now extremely rare. “What you find is that firms who were specialising in Diplock work are taking on ordinary criminal work, so nobody seems to have suffered too badly.”
Michael Davey, secretary of the Law Society of Northern Ireland, said: “On the criminal side there has been a major reduction in terrorist cases, but people can simply transfer to other criminal work.”
Sectarian crime has traditionally been a rich source of income for criminal lawyers in the Province. One lawyer estimated it provided around 90 per cent of Criminal Bar work.
However, figures released by the Northern Ireland Courts Service show that last year, which included nearly five months of ceasefire, the number of Diplock cases disposed of fell by 11 per cent.
They dipped below 400 for the first time in the decade and accounted for just over 30 per cent of all offences dealt with.
Davey said the ceasefire has generated more commercial work in Northern Ireland. “On the whole peace has really been a bonus for the Province.
“It has had the effect of maintaining and supporting confidence in the housing market and there is evidence that on the commercial side there is increased economic activity.”