In an embarrassing setback for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in its long running dispute over legal aid with the Bar, a Crown court judge today (1 January) halted a costly publicly funded serious fraud trial after the defendants failed to find representation.
His Honour Judge Leonard QC, sitting in Southwark Crown Court, found 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.’
Furthermore, the judge 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.’ Declaring the case to be stayed, he found that even if the case was put back to next year, there was no realistic prospect of finding representation, and to put it back further than that would be ‘unconscionable’.
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 recalled today: ‘By 27 November 2013 all counsel had returned their briefs.’
The case, which 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, is the first high profile case where barristers have refused to act on grounds of insufficient public funding.
Representing the defendants pro bono was the Prime Minister David Cameron’s brother Alex Cameron QC, who argued that the proceedings should be halted because the defendants were unrepresented through no fault of their own.
Cameron QC also argued that Mr Justice Leonard should not grant an adjournment ‘because the possibility that at some unknown date in the future an adequately funded advocate may become available is no basis on which to grant an adjournment.’
The Crown accepted that lack of representation would breach the European Convention on Human Rights but requested the case be adjourned to a future date rather than halted entirely.
Finding that the trial could not go ahead without representation Mr Justice Leonard said: ‘It would be unconscionable to put this trial off to September 2015 with the second trial being heard in 2016. On what I now know, there is no basis on which I could find that the availability of advocates would be any different then than it will be in January 2015.’
In a statement today the Bar Council said: ‘Each advocate who had signed a contract to undertake a VHCC case was presented by the Government with a choice: either to accept a 30% cut in their fees or to terminate their contract. They chose to terminate their contracts.
‘Since then, we understand that no barrister has signed a new contract to undertake a VHCC at the reduced rates.’