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Appeal over halted fraud trial

3rd Jun 2014

The Court of Appeal is to hear a legal challenge against a judge’s decision to halt a serious fraud trial after the defendants said legal aid cuts meant they could not find barristers to represent them.

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), which is prosecuting, will seek to overturn the ruling by Judge Anthony Leonard.

Legal aid fees in England and Wales have been cut by up to 30%, which has seen many barristers refusing to take on long or complex cases.

In his ruling, Judge Leonard said it would be a “violation” of the legal process to allow the prosecution to proceed on an alleged £4.9 million land fraud.

The case was brought last year by the FCA against eight men, five of whom were subject to the ruling.  It concerned the activities of Plott UK Ltd, European Property Investments Ltd and Stirling Alexander Ltd between 2008 and 2011.

The Ministry of Justice has recently been seeking to cut down its £2 billion a year legal aid bill.

It says its proposals, which are due to come into effect after the summer of 2015, would cut fees in complex, high-cost cases by up to 30%.  Fees in other crown court work would be cut by up to 18%.

In protest at the 30% cut, many barristers are refusing to take on the most complex cases.

The defence team in the fraud case had contacted 70 barrister chambers in their search for suitable representation.  Only one barrister put himself forward, and he later withdrew his services.  It had been feared the defendants would have to defend themselves, but prosecutors agree that this would have been a breach of their human rights.

The Ministry of Justice said the government has made sure that the Public Defender Service (PDS) had a number of suitably qualified lawyers who could act in the case.

But in his ruling, Judge Leonard said it was “beyond question” that the PDS was “not in a position to provide sufficient representation”, and he refused to adjourn the fraud case.

The case against the men was “complex and substantial”, the court heard.  It involved 46,030 pages of evidence and 864,000 lines of spreadsheet data.