The government is set on a collision course with the bar if it goes through with a move to expand the Public Defender Service (PDS) to cover cases hit by the ongoing fee dispute.
Last week, the High Court, led by Sir Brian Leveson, overturned the stay granted by a Crown court in the ‘Operation Cotton’ case, a £4.5m fraud prosecution in which the five defendants were not represented.
Barristers have refused to accept briefs for the most serious criminal cases following 30% fee cuts in December. The move has left eight serious fraud trials, involving 31 publicly funded defendants, in difficulty.
To try to resolve the issue, the Ministry of Justice said it will seek to expand the PDS, which currently employs 20 advocates, including four silks. Two more QCs are set to join soon.
The skeleton argument submitted on behalf of lord chancellor Chris Grayling in the Financial Conduct Authority’s successful appeal against the stay in Operation Cotton said the ministry was ready to place advertisements on the weekend of 17 May and headhunters had been retained to hire senior counsel.
However, no advertisements had appeared at press time.
Giving judgment, Leveson said it was of ‘fundamental importance’ that the bar and government resolve the ‘impasse’. But moves to grow the PDS will antagonise the bar and could lead to further protests.
Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association Nigel Lithman QC said he has written to Grayling inviting him to ‘rejoin discussions’ and seeking a reversal of the 30% fee cut.
A MoJ spokesman said the lord chancellor is ‘entirely supportive’ of the independent, self-employed bar.