Kevin Winters:Northern Ireland's top-earning legal aid solicitor has been accused of being at the heart of a smear campaign
Northern Ireland's top-earning legal aid solicitor has been accused of being at the heart of a smear campaign which linked the Justice Minister to a lawyer who broke ranks in the bitter legal pay dispute.
Kevin Winters, whose firm earned £16.5m in legal aid over the past six years, was yesterday named in Stormont as the lawyer who sent an email suggesting that journalists should run a story about an alleged connection between Antrim solicitor Gary Bell and David Ford.
Mr Bell was the first solicitor to publicly state that he would work for reduced Crown Court fees introduced by the minister.
A row over the new legal aid fees has led to lawyers across the province refusing to take on cases in a dispute which has crippled the courts system. Mr Bell later withdrew from criminal legal aid work, stating that he had been the victim of bullying and intimidation.
Stormont's justice committee is now to write to the Law Society to call on it to carry out a full investigation into the allegations.
Mr Winters last night said the matter is the subject "of a complaint and counter-complaint and as such it would be entirely inappropriate for me or anyone, in my view, to comment any further".
During a meeting of the justice committee yesterday, DUP MLA Jim Wells said that Mr Winters had sent the email to another solicitor, and copied in around 70 legal practitioners, saying that he was trying to get some journalists to run with a story about alleged links between Mr Bell and the Justice Minister. Mr Ford told the committee that he had received calls from two journalists asking him a series of questions about an alleged relationship between him and Mr Bell and/or Mr Bell's wife.
"I suggested it was utter rubbish. There is no connection whatsoever with Mr Bell or Mrs Bell," said Mr Ford.
Mr Wells then told the committee that Mr Winters earned £16.5m in legal aid and asked: "Why would someone in receipt of legal aid suggest to get a journalist to run with what he calls the Bell/Ford issue?"
Committee member Peter Weir said he believed the "Ford/Bell" link seemed to be an intention to indicate that someone had decided to break ranks in the legal dispute because of a connection with the Justice Minister.
He said it would suggest a favour was being done for the minister, or that the work was being taken on "through an improper motive".
Mr Weir added: "On the face of it there appears to be a very disturbing element, for someone attempting to raise that attempted smear. The Law Society will have to come to their own conclusions. What I see as a very disturbing situation has developed."
Committee chairman Paul Givan said that after the Belfast Telegraph reported Mr Bell's withdrawal from the case amid allegations of bullying and intimidation, he was contacted by the Law Society who assured him the solicitor's complaint would be given "the full rigours of investigation".
Mr Winters' firm is one of more than 80 legal practices to withdraw from Crown Court cases over the past two months, leaving more than 200 suspects without legal representation and the courts system in gridlock.
Solicitors involved in the dispute say they cannot adequately defend suspects under the new reduced payment scheme introduced by the minister in an attempt to slash the province's soaring legal aid bills.
Two weeks ago Mr Bell told the Belfast Telegraph he had lodged a complaint with the Law Society and David Ford that attempts were made by a number of lawyers to discredit him and force him not to take on any Crown Court cases after he broke ranks.
The Law Society said it is aware of the comments made at the justice committee.
Firm at forefront in field of human rights
In less than a decade Kevin R Winters & Co has grown into one of, if not the biggest, criminal law firms in Ireland. It is also heavily involved in human rights work.
For six consecutive years his firm earned more in legal aid fees than any other practice in Northern Ireland.
Within that time the practice received £16.5m in legal aid payments. It is thought that around £2m in legal aid was paid to the firm last year.
Kevin R Winters is one of around 80 solicitors practices involved in the current legal aid dispute and has withdrawn from all new Crown Court cases in protest at the cuts to legal aid fees introduced by David Ford in April.
The firm has six partners and employs a total of 30 staff including solicitors and administration staff.
It has been involved in some of the biggest criminal trials in Northern Ireland in recent years, including defending Chris Ward in the £26.5m Northern Bank robbery trial, and Sean Hoey, the only person to face trial over the Omagh bomb.
Other cases include defending one of the suspects in the Robert McCartney murder trial and representing Fr Eugene Lewis in a historic sex abuse case. The firm also represented Roisin McAliskey in extradition proceedings with Germany and is currently assisting the families of the Loughinisland massacre victims in their fight for justice.
Mr Winters' firm has also provided advice to lawyers representing the parents of Madeleine McCann and to the Scottish lawyers of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted for involvement in the Lockerbie Bombings.
Wrangle has solicitors and Justice Minister at loggerheads
For almost 12 weeks Northern Ireland's legal profession has been at loggerheads with David Ford over cuts to its criminal legal aid fees. In what has become an increasingly bitter and hostile dispute lawyers across the province are refusing to defend Crown Court suspects for the reduced pay rates introduced by the minister in April in a controversial cost-cutting exercise.
More than 200 crime suspects are now without any legal representation, bringing a number of serious court cases to a halt.
Attempts by the Justice Minister to break the deadlock in the courts by gathering a group of solicitors and barristers willing to take on the cases for the reduced fees has so far not proved to be overly successful.
Since 2003, the NI Legal Services Commission has spent £340m on criminal legal aid to cover defendants' counsel costs.
Yesterday Mr Ford said that a damning audit office report released this week into the soaring cost of criminal legal aid in Northern Ireland "illustrates the compelling reason for reform".
More than 80 of the province's top legal firms have, however, insisted they cannot afford to defend suspects under the new payment structure, which they say represents a reduction in their pay of up to 50% in certain cases.
After a meeting between the Department of Justice, the Law Society and the Bar Council on Tuesday, Mr Ford said that the new fee structure cannot be changed, but any proposals to resolve the dispute were welcome.
If the dispute is not resolved by the new court term in the autumn Mr Ford said he will put his contingency plans in action.