Fraud trial collapses over legal aid cuts

Topics: Criminal justice,Legal aid and access to justice,Courts business,Government & politics

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  • Judge Anthony Leonard

A Crown court judge has thrown out a £4.5m fraud trial after the defendants were left without advocates because of government legal aid cuts.

In a judgment that will be a shattering blow to justice secretary Chris Grayling, His Honour Judge Leonard QC (pictured) refused to adjourn the case of R v Crawley and Others for defence advocates to materialise and instead stayed the proceedings.

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Leonard said there was no realistic prospect that enough advocates would become available to take on the case.

Barristers have refused to take very high cost cases since the government cut fees for such cases by 30% last December.

Leonard said there was no reason to think the bar will start to accept VHCCs at the reduced rates and said that the Public Defender Service (PDS) – which had been the Financial Conduct Authority’s (FCA’s) suggested remedy – is ‘so small that it is insufficient’ to cover the cases.

The prime minister’s brother, Alex Cameron QC, acted for the defendants pro bono in the hearing, assisted by solicitor-advocate Lee Adams, partner at London firm Hughmans.

The Crown had been represented by Ben Emmerson QC, Sean Larkin QC, Paul Raudnitz and Polly Dyer.

The decision to stay the case is only in relation to the five defendants in the present trial, dubbed Operation Cotton.

A second trial arising out of the same operation, and six other major fraud trials, are unaffected by the immediate ruling. They remain scheduled to go ahead, but face the same problem of unrepresented defendants due to the legal aid cuts, so may also be in jeopardy.

The prosecution can appeal the stay and were given until 3pm tomorrow to notify the defence and the court whether they will do so.

Commenting as he left court, Adams praised the judge and Cameron for their ‘brave’ decisions, the former for his judgment and the latter for taking the case pro bono.

The Ministry of Justice sought to blame barristers for the collapse. A spokesman said: 'Barristers have refused to work on this case - and a number of other very high cost court cases - because they do not agree with savings the government is making to legal aid.'

He suggested: 'Even after the savings, if a QC picked up a case like this one, they could expect to receive around £100,000 for working on it, with a junior barrister receiving around £60,000. '

In addition, he said: 'The government has made sure that the PDS has a number of suitably qualified advocates who could act in this case.'

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan described the collapse as 'an astonishing indictment' of the government's policies. 'Time and again ministers have been warned their changes to legal aid could lead to miscarriages of justice and trials collapsing. Today, these warnings have come true.'

The FCA said it is considering the judgment and whether to appeal and will not comment further at this stage.

Read the full judgment.

Readers' comments (37)

  • This is our moment ..... Please will somebody least us, into a strike.
    All it will take is 2 weeks of no solicitor attending at a police station, prison, magistrates court or crown court, and this destruction of the legal aid solicitors will cease.
    Please somebody.... lead us .

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  • This is a real boon for common sense, and proof that the current system is simply unfit for purpose.

    Grayling embarassingly was caught on Sky TV earlier suggesting that we have the most expensive legal aid system in the world at £200M.... er no... those are the savings you're looking for....

    It makes me chuckle that Graylings obvious error highlights the fact that not only is he not fit for purpose either, he remains the head of a legal system.... without any legal qualifications.

    Time to tell the Emperor he's naked I think....

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  • "Dear Alex,

    You are off my Chrsitmas card list.

    Love
    David
    xx"

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  • "I am compelled to conclude 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 amounts to a violation of the process of this court."

    Sums it up nicely, I think.

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  • "The knock-on effect on other trials, the waste of court resources and the need to disregard the Criminal Procedure Rules designed to protect the court system from abuse and to ensure that scare resources are used to best effect all, in my judgment, add to the reasons why an adjournment should not be granted"

    I loved this part of the judgement. It is almost as if the state has been "Mitchelled" and bearing in mind who Mitchell was almost makes it comical.

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  • Call me cynical but what better way to remove high profile fraud cases from the judicial process. First David cameron's Government introduce huge legal aiid cuts - then his brother brings this to a head by asking for, and getting a major case stayed because defendants can't afford or get representation. Between them, the result is the same - potentially controversail cases which could embarass the Gov (I'm thinking of another Southwark case due next year) are kicked out of Court. Not enough money for the QCs = no justice for the victims? Justice? i don't think so. Are we in ancient Rome?

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  • "There is no avoiding war; it can only be postponed to the advantage of others." Niccolo Machiavelli

    Robust action can succeed where mere "engagement" flounders.

    Lawyers must now launch a robust defence in respect of the various attacks taking place against our revered, but vulnerable, legal system in all its branches.

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  • I would hate to make a silly suggestion, but doesn't this case illustrate the restraint of trade that both the Bar and the Law Soceity are engaged in?
    Surely the answer is an expanded PDS- if a defendant cannot find (or cannot afford) an advocate on the open legal market, then a public defender will be provided.
    The collapse of this trial shows how disfunctional and anti-competetive the legal profession is rather than being evidence of wrongheaded government policy.
    While I personally disagree with the government's decision to cut legal aid, a more open market in legal services would adapt better to these cuts. There are a great many aspiring lawyers who would jump at such a chance if not restricted by the current structure of the profession.

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  • Yes I completely agree with anonymous 0144. Remove all barriers to entry and continue to pay progressively less for those unable to fund themselves. The LAA can then provide an operative from a call centre in India on £2 an hour representing in court via Videolink (as recently proposed by some genius). Excellence can be guaranteed by the continuing application of the Quality Mark.
    Let's do it! I believe the tender is already open.

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  • In reality the PDS would still be more expensive and am still after the true figures!

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