The UK Court of Appeal is hearing a case concerning a decision to drop a high-profile fraud case, after it emerged that many of the accused could not obtain appropriate legal representation because of cuts to legal aid funding, reports the BBC.
The appeal is being brought by the Financial Conduct Authority, who spent years compiling a case against several men accused of conducting a £5m fraud through the practice of land banking.
The case, R v Crawley and Others, has previously been adjourned on a number of occasions, as the defendants have repeatedly tried and failed to find barristers willing to take the case on in light of the recent government cuts to the legal aid budget.
Trial judge Anthony Leonard last week ruled that it would be unconscionable to adjourn the case for another six months, or even a year, deciding that the landscape for barristers capable of taking on such a complex case was unlikely to be any different in the future.
“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,” said the trial judge.
The Government believes that the collapse of the case against the men is a result of greediness of barristers, who they say would still earn between £60,000 and £100,000 by taking the work on.
However, despite this no barristers have made themselves available, meaning that the defendants would be denied their chance to a fair trial.
The judge also commented that the long wait for the state to correct the deficiencies in the legal aid system would result in a breach of the defendants’ human right to a fair trial.
The BBC reports that the Court of Appeal is being asked by the FCA to overrule the original trial judge, who they claim erred in law when he ruled that the case against the defendants should be dropped altogether.
The FCA believes that there is a public interest in seeing the men prosecuted, and that the correct decision would have been to order an adjournment till a later date, to allow the men to continue to search for barristers willing to take the case.
The Court of Appeal justices have said that they will not pass any comment on the dispute between barristers and the Government, and will simply look at whether the trial judge was entitled to make the decision he made based on the facts presented before him.
It is understood that many other fraud trials could be affected by the outcome of this decision. Fraud trials are often complex, and as a result are classified as ‘Very High Cost Cases’ (VHCC).
The Government has cut the amount of funding available through the legal aid budget for VHCC’s by as much as 30%, resulting in many barristers deciding to no longer accept such work.
This decision is placing the entire justice system under strain, as the Government faces up to the prospect of many other complex fraud cases being dropped due to a lack of suitably qualified lawyers to represent defendants.
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