Serious fraud trial abandoned because of cuts to legal aid for defence representation

6 May 2014 by

blind justiceR v Scott Crawley and others – read judgement

A judge has halted a serious fraud trial after defendants claimed they could not get adequate representation because cuts to legal aid, and as a result they would not get a fair trial under common law or Article 6 of the Convention. This case could be the first of a number of  reversals following the government’s legal aid reforms with seven further trials due to start before September 2015 involving 28 defendants in similar positions.

The defendants were charged with offences of conspiracy to defraud, possessing criminal property and offences where the evidence was complex and substantial. The the case against the five men amounted to more than 46,000 pages of documents and the case summary itself covered 55 pages. In essence, the Crown alleged that the defendants had been involved in a fraudulent land selling scheme. Some purchasers were given good title, some were not, and some sub-plots were sold more than once. Various interventions by the FSA (as it then was) to stop the practices were subverted by transferring the fraudulent scheme to a new company.

Background

In July the Legal Aid Authority notified the parties that the case had been classified as a Very High Cost Case (VHCC).Shortly after this the Ministry of Justice (“MoJ”) announced their intention to cut fees paid to counsel by 30%. The Bar announced their dissatisfaction with this decision and their intention to undeem VHCC cases.

During this same period the MoJ and the Bar were negotiating over proposed reductions in graduated fees. The Public Defender Service (“PDS”), a department of the LAA, began actively to recruit a pool of employed advocates to take on work that might otherwise have been done by independent advocate.

At a hearing on 14th November 2013 the defence raised concerns that they would not have counsel for the trial and that there was insufficient time for any counsel who might now be instructed to be ready by April 2014. By the end of November all counsel had returned their briefs.

In this hearing Alex Cameron QC appeared bro bono to advance the argument on behalf of the defendants that Leonard HHJ should stay the proceedings because they are unrepresented through no fault of their own and that he 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 involuntary lack of representation would be inconsistent with the European Convention on Human Rights and common law rights and they acknowledged that a fair trial could not be held now. But they submitted that there was a reasonable prospect that advocates would be available to represent the defendants in the future and that the judge should adjourn the trial to a future date rather than staying the indictment. A stay as an abuse of process is an exceptional remedy, but nor should the defendants in this case become “victims of a dispute between the Bar and the government” (para 24):

my decision on how to proceed in this case is taken without regard to the continuing dispute between the Bar and the MoJ. I am only concerned with the merits of the arguments put before me and to ensure that a trial is only held if it can be conducted fairly in accordance with the principles long established in this country and which are, additionally, enshrined in Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The efforts to find representation included contact with 70 sets of chambers with barristers who hold themselves out as competent to undertake this sort of work in and outside London. By 15th January 2014 there was one silk who put himself forward as willing to accept instructions. He withdrew on 16th January. Enquiries were made without success with the Bar of Northern Ireland and the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh.

The efforts put in by the defence to find trial advocates had been, in the judge’s words, “very substantial indeed” and in the end, unsuccessful. There was no compromise solution in this case:

Criminal trials of this complexity rely on the skills of highly competent and experienced advocates on both sides to reduce issues, make matters understandable to a jury and keep trials to a reasonable length.

The judge was referred to Croissant v. Germany (1993) 16 E.H.R.R. 135 in respect of the right to a choice of representation where the state pays for legal assistance.In that case it was considered sufficient that the court appoints a lawyer to defend and individual; the right of a defendant to choose his own counsel cannot be considered absolute. In the present case the judge was of the view that the defendants could not hold out for independent counsel of their choice to become available.

In determining whether he should grant an adjournment rather than the more drastic remedy of a stay, Leonard HHJ had to consider a number of factors:

  1. Failure to grant an adjournment will deprive the victims of crime of the opportunity to see those that they judge responsible prosecuted.To deny them that opportunity should not be lightly taken.
  2. Against that,  there are other methods available to the victims to recover their losses civilly and there are other regulatory offences which could be brought against the defendants which may not meet the gravamen of the conduct alleged but which could mark out their alleged misconduct and prevent them from being able to take a rôle in corporate activity in the future.
  3. On the other hand, the responsibility to provide adequate representation at public expense is also the responsibility of the State. I have considered whether the State should in those circumstances be entitled to benefit from its own failure by being granted an adjournment.
  4. An adjournment of the trial would involve an additional stress on the State’s provision of resources to try crime.

In view of the availability of barristers and the preparation time required the judge was not satisfied that sufficient advocates would be available to assist these defendants at trail, nor did he have any reason to think that there was a realistic prospect tha the Bar would accept contracts in VHCC cases on the present MOJ terms.

Having considered all these matters he was 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. He further found that there was no realistic prospect that sufficient advocates would be available for this case to be tried in January 2015 from any of the sources available to the defence, including the PDS.

Speaking to The Independent, a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice 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.

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.

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