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Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling brought in on landmark ‘Opcotton’ legal aid appeal

The Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling has been brought in on today’s (13 May) landmark appeal challenging a Crown Court decision to stay a high value publicly funded serious fraud trial, after the defendants failed to find any barrister prepared to represent them on reduced legal aid rates.

In the case of R v Crawley and Others, which was brought by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) following the Operation Cotton investigation, His Honour Judge Leonard QC, sitting in Southwark Crown Court, found on 1 May that while the case was ready for trial and the court had set aside the necessary time to hear the case, ‘none of the five defendants can receive a fair trial unrepresented. It follows that none of the five defendants can be tried now.’

The judge also found that it would be unconscionable to adjourn the hearing to a later date, when there was no basis to believe the position will be any different.

After a request was made by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), Grayling (pictured) has been granted leave to be represented as an interested party at the case, which is being heard by Lord Justices Leveson, Treacy and Davis and the outcome of which will have potentially huge ramifications for the future prosecution of major fraud and drug cases.

Grayling is represented by Blackstone Chambers’ joint head Anthony Peto QC and Peter Woodall from legal aid agency the Public Defender Service, which he joined from Carmelite Chambers last month.

The FCA is being represented by Sean Larkin QC from QEB Hollis Whiteman Chambers, with Blackstone’s Ben Jaffey acting as his junior.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: ‘Following a request from the Financial Conduct Authority, the Ministry of Justice will be making representations at the appeal hearing to ensure the fullest possible information is before the Court in reaching a decision. It is important to ensure that justice is properly served.’

The case was declared on 22 July last year to be a ‘very high cost case’ (VHCC) by the Legal Aid Authority, a category of cases that, after the Ministry of Justice announced public funding cuts of 30% on September 2013, advocates with a contract to conduct VHCC work chose to end the contract on the new rates.

Mr Justice Leonard concluded that ‘to allow the State an adjournment to put right its failure to provide the necessary resources to permit a fair trial to take place now would amount to a violation of the process of this court.’

The case charges Scot Crawley, Dale Walker, Daniel Forsyth, Aaron Petrou and Brendon Daley with conspiracy to defraud, possessing criminal property and offences relating to the activities of Plott UK, European Property Investments and Stirling Alexander.

Representing the defendants pro bono was the Prime Minister David Cameron’s brother Alex Cameron QC, who is continuing to represent the defendants in today’s appeal.

It is the first high profile case where barristers have refused to act due to insufficient fees.