The Bar of Ireland, the body which represents barristers, has sought talks with the Government on pay restoration and urged the Coalition to acknowledge “significant reforms” it has already put in place.
In a letter to the Taoiseach sent on Friday, the chairwoman of the Council of the Bar of Ireland, Sara Phelan, SC, welcomed “the intention of the Government to finally engage meaningfully with the Bar of Ireland on this matter”.
Leo Varadkar told the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting this week that reversing recession era cuts in the fees paid to criminal lawyers could be considered only if some reforms went hand-in-hand – a position mirrored by a spokeswoman for Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe on Thursday.
Adjustments to the fee structure “could only be considered in the context of securing necessary and substantial reform”, the spokeswoman told The Irish Times.
However, the suggestion that concessions should be made has prompted a backlash from the legal trade, which says it has overhauled significant parts of its working practices, and has had support from the Department of Justice and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) for reversing the cuts for several years.
In her letter to the Taoiseach, Ms Phelan referenced a review by the DPP in 2018 which concluded that the “ongoing flexibility being delivered by prosecuting counsel, documented above, is considered comparable to the flexibility delivered by other groups to justify the reversing of cuts imposed during the financial emergency”.
The review, she told the Taoiseach, was carried out in conjunction with the Department of Justice and sanctioned by the Department of Public Expenditure.
Ms Phelan told the Taoiseach that barristers had, since then, continued to co-operate with additional changes in work practices, including the introduction of preliminary trial hearings and implementing recommendations of a review of protections for vulnerable witnesses involved in the prosecution of sexual offences.
“To date, the approach being taken in relation to the unwinding of cuts applied to the professional fees of barristers has been at odds with the approach taken in relation to other groupings,” she wrote, arguing that State solicitors engaged by the DPP to work on the same cases prosecuted by barristers have had pay restoration implemented, which she said was an “obvious anomaly and demonstrates a clear unfairness in the approach of Government in its pay policy”.
“The Bar of Ireland will, of course, always be a willing and engaged participant in any discussions on reform and improvement of the criminal justice system and the administration of justice and we are happy to engage in discussions on those issues. But there should be no misunderstanding of the present position: the bar has already provided flexibility and efficiencies comparable to those provided by other groups in return for reversal of cuts and has long ago satisfied the relevant frontline departments of that,” she wrote.
Chairman of the Criminal State Bar Committee, Seán Guerin, said in a statement that it was “vital now that Government understands the risk that is being created”.
“Our criminal justice system depends on the provision of high-quality advocacy services to both prosecution and defence by the independent referral bar. The failure to ensure fair pay for that important work, and the targeting of the bar as the only participant in the criminal justice system not to secure pay restoration, is a fundamental threat to the integrity of that system,” he said.
Ms Phelan concluded the letter, which was copied to Mr Donohoe, by saying she looked forward to hearing from him “in the coming days” and confirming “our willingness to positively engage”.