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LIMERICK solicitors and barristers practicing criminal law will be outside – instead of inside – courts on Tuesday.

A strike has been announced from 10am to 1pm and it is envisaged it will be the biggest demonstration outside of Dublin.

Julianne Kiely, president of Limerick Solicitors Bar Association, and Cian Kelly BL, Limerick representative on the Bar Council, told Limerick Live the decision to withdraw their services has not been taken lightly but they feel they have no other choice.

Ms Kiely said many criminal law defence practitioners have made the decision to withdraw their services before the courts on Tuesday, October 3 in support of their barrister colleagues.

“They also wish to add their voice in protest at the ongoing situation in relation to criminal legal aid fees for solicitors that has continued now for well over a decade.  Cuts were imposed during the difficult financial years and despite promises at that time that fees would be restored, this never came to pass. 

“The criminal legal aid fees paid were higher in 2009 than they are today. They were slashed to their lowest in 2012 and have remained at that level since. It has become increasingly difficult to remain in practice given the level of fees paid and in the face of ever rising inflation and cost of living,” said Ms Kiely, in a statement.

Criminal legal-aid fees are almost 30% less in real terms than they were before the cuts were imposed following the Celtic Tiger crash.

“This not only affects the individual practitioner but also their employees. Approaches were made to successive governments to address the situation but all efforts by the solicitor practitioners to deal with the issue have been ignored. A local political representative raised this issue in the Dáil on our behalf as recently as November 2022. A Government minister responded with reference to barristers without acknowledging solicitors at all. 

“A decision to withdraw is not taken lightly by the practitioners but at this stage it is felt that they have no other choice but to take this course of action. A professional, hard-working and empathetic legal profession is of the greatest importance. I am proud to say that Limerick solicitors fall into this category. We work hard for our clients in a busy environment and enjoy a good relationship with all stakeholders,” said Ms Kiely.

Multiple sittings of the district court take place across Limerick city and county every week – making it one of the busiest court districts in the country.

“We are a busy district and have continued to provide services in the face of ever-increasing cost pressures, lack of resources and at times a disproportionate amount of cancellations of our courts due to the unavailability of judges. Limerick has not only called on successive governments to address the issue of legal aid fees but also the amount of Judges and resources available to support Limerick,” added Ms Kiely. 

“Unfortunately, it has become increasingly difficult to sustain a practice and continue in our profession in the area of criminal law defence. Many practitioners have had no choice but to leave this area of practice and it is not attractive to our young professionals. 

“This will lead to difficulties in the future regarding access to justice and will also create a divide for those who can afford and those who cannot. A fair and balanced legal system is at the very core of our democratic society and should be supported and maintained for all stakeholders to include the legal profession,” concludes the statement.

Mr Kelly insists the strike is a “last resort”.

“We have been trying to engage with the different Government departments for approximately the last 12 years since the initial cuts were first introduced and then additional and more significant cuts were further applied shortly thereafter.

“We have been engaging with every Government department as much as possible. We now have the support of the Minister for Justice, we have the support of the Director of Public Prosecutions and other parties involved in the criminal justice sphere. It is essentially down to the Department of Public Expenditure who obviously control the purse strings. We are just being met with a brick all. They are not engaging with us at all,” he said.

Emergency public service pay cuts during the financial crisis have left barristers fees at 2002 levels or down over 40%.

“We are looking at a scenario when we are sitting in court everybody’s pay has been restored except us – guards, prison officers, probation service, court service staff, judges, anybody else involved in the court case who is paid by the State has had their pay restored except us. That is essentially what it boils down to – just because you are self- employed as opposed to being directly employed by a Government agency,” said Mr Kelly.

He envisages that the strike on Tuesday will be the largest demonstration outside of Dublin as the only circuit criminal court sitting in Clare, Limerick and Kerry is listed for Limerick Courthouse, Mulgrave Street.

The barrister compares how the world has changed since 2002 and the additional work involved for barristers and solicitors in 2023.

“We’re talking mobile phones, computers, social media accounts. In 2002, it was a very paper-based world. When you are looking at disclosure from a laptop, mobile phone or social media accounts – when that comes to be printed that is boxes upon boxes and boxes,” said Mr Kelly, who qualified in 2006 and has seen many colleagues leave the profession since then.

“I would say there is roughly between half to a quarter of the people that qualified with me still practicing. I appreciate when lists are published and people see a couple of names making an enormous amount of money but that is like saying somebody working for the Limerick Leader is making Ryan Tubridy money,” said Mr Kelly.

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