Legal aid cuts leads to halting of serious fraud trial

Judge Anthony Leonard sitting at Southwark Crown Court has halted a serious fraud trial after defendants claimed they could not get adequate representation because of cuts to legal aid.

The Ministry of Justice said there were "suitably qualified" lawyers available referring to the Public Defender Service (PDS). However, in his ruling Judge Leonard said it was "beyond question" that the PDS was "not in a position to provide sufficient representation".

The case against the men was "complex and substantial", the court heard, involving 46,030 pages of evidence and 864,000 lines of spreadsheet data.

It is reported that in their search for suitable representation, the defence team contacted 70 barrister chambers with the only one who put himself forward withdrawing in January.

There was concern the defendants would have to defend themselves but prosecutors agreed this would have been a breach of their human rights.

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan told the BBC he knew of eight other complex criminal cases where barristers could not be found, including those relating to the Libor rate-fixing scandal. He added: "Time and again ministers have been warned their changes to legal aid could lead to miscarriage of justice and trials collapsing. Today, these warnings have come true."

Many barristers in England and Wales are refusing to take on complex cases because of 30% cuts to their fees.

Notably it was Alex Cameron QC the prime minister's brother, who worked on the bid to halt the case putting the case that the defendants would not get a fair trial. It appears his involvement was pivotal in the trial being stopped.

Arguing that the case against five defendants should not go ahead, Mr Cameron said: "A stay is exceptional, but so is lack of representation in this country. We are worried about a fair trial.

The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) has been opposing the recent cuts to legal laid. Nigel Lithman QC, chairman of the CBA said skilled and experienced advocates were essential in very high-cost cases (VHCCs).

It is understood that barristers were presented with the choice of taking a 30% cut on very high cost cases VHCC cases or have their contract terminated and they chose the later.

Legal Aid cuts also extend to solicitors fees with a 17.5% cut over 2 years which commenced on 20th March 2014. The cuts are expected to result in many firms closing their criminal legal aid departments and those remaining firms facing difficult choices over pay cuts and redundancies that will further prejudice access to justice.