Yesterday saw the landmark decision at Southwark Crown Court in respect of the case R v Crawley and others to stay proceedings over fears that defendants would not receive a fair trial due to the difficulties encountered by the defendants to instruct barristers.
The defendants faced charges including conspiracy to defraud and possessing criminal property. Such allegations being as a result of Operation Cotton, a Financial Conduct Authority investigation into an alleged land bank fraud to the value of £4.5 million.
The changes to legal aid have resulted in a 30 per cent cut to such type of cases and consequently, since the announcement of the cuts in December 2013, barristers have refused to accept work in respect of VHCC matters (Very High Cost cases).
Operation Cotton was the first case to be tried under the new rates. Transitional arrangements had been provisioned which allowed for litigators and advocates to be funded at previous rates but only in respect of cases listed for trial on or before the 31st March 2014. In November 2013 defence teams raised with the Court their concerns that there may not be Counsel available for the trial due to the cuts. However at that time is was felt too soon for any determination to be made that there could not be a fair trial. Subsequently, counsel for all defence teams returned their briefs leaving the defendants unrepresented in relation to the trial.
Alex Cameron QC, brother of David Cameron, who represented the defendants on a pro bono basis, advanced the argument that there should be a stay to the proceedings. The Crown, whilst they conceded that a fair trial could not be held and would be inconsistent with the European Convention on Human Rights, argued that the case should be adjourned as there was a possibility or a hope that barristers could be found to represent the defendants in the future.
His Honour Judge Leonard QC in his ruling stated:
Having considered all these matters 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.
Yesterday the Financial Conduct Authority published on their website that they were considering the ruling and whether or not to appeal.
It is clear that careful consideration now needs to be given to the changes to legal aid rates that have so far been imposed. The Court had no option but to abandon a complex fraud trial due to concerns that defendants would not receive a fair trial. Without changes to the exiting rates it is somewhat likely that this case could be the first of many.
At Farleys we have a team of criminal defence solicitors who specialise in serious crime and fraud. Our fraud lawyers can provide advice and representation 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on all areas of serious crime.
If you have been accused of involvement in relation to a fraud offence, or indeed serious crime in any capacity, it is vital that you speak to a criminal defence solicitor at the earliest opportunity. Early advice is often crucial. For 24 hour advice via our emergency crime line, call 01254 606050.