A £4.5m fraud trial stayed by a Crown court judge because barristers declined to take the case is back on track. The development comes as the bar appears set to announce a deal with the Ministry of Justice on the fee cuts that prompted the boycott.
Five defendants in the first trial arising out of the Operation Cotton investigation into a land-banking fraud appeared before His Honour Judge Anthony Leonard at Southwark Crown Court on Friday - all represented by barristers.
Leonard had thrown out the case, R v Crawley & Others, in May because barristers declined to take it, following 30% cuts to fees paid for very high cost cases introduced in December.
Leonard ruled that since there was no indication that independent barristers would take the case and an insufficient number were available from the Public Defender Service, there was no realistic prospect that enough barristers would be available to take the case.
Three weeks later the Court of Appeal, lead by Sir Brian Leveson, overturned the stay, stating that the matter ought to have been adjourned to see if barristers would become available. Leveson urged the Ministry of Justice and the bar to resolve the ‘impasse’.
Alexander Cameron QC (pictured) acted pro bono for the defendants in the prosecution’s initial failed application for a stay and in the appeal. He is not involved in the trial itself.
The first trial arising out of the Operation Cotton investigation has been listed to begin on 5 January 2015 and the second for 27 April.
In his weekly email to members the chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, Nigel Lithman QC, said he hopes an agreement will be announced next week.
He said there was a meeting with the MoJ last week and another is planned for this week. 'I await the moment to announce the agreement for which we have been striving with the government over the higher cost cases. I trust you will wait a few days longer, confident that even the most critical of you now realise we would never agree to sell the bar short.’
A Law Society spokesperson said: 'It is our understanding that the fixed fee arrangements relate to the current pipeline of stalled cases only and that the fees payable are in line with MoJ budget reductions within the reduced financial envelope we have all been forced to work with. We continue to have deep misgivings about the changes to criminal legal aid and the longer-term implications for access to justice, as we are already seeing in civil cases with vulnerable people being unrepresented.'
The MoJ said talks with the bar are ongoing.