A fraud case against five men collapsed today after the Prime Minister’s barrister brother successfully argued that they could not receive a fair trial because of the Government’s legal aid cuts.
The men were told they would not stand trial accused of a complex land banking scam because they could not get a proper defence team in place because of the slashing of fees paid to barristers, said Judge Leonard QC today.
The case could be the first of a number of potentially embarrassing 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 government has argued that the country has one of the world’s most expensive legal systems with such complex fraud cases costing around £8.5m and is ripe for reform.
The defendants were among eight men charged in April last year with financial crimes over the alleged tricking of investors over a scam to buy land and sell it at vastly inflated profits but the judge there was no guarantee that senior lawyers could be found for a trial in September by next year. He said it would be “unconscionable” to put off the trial until that date.
The ruling came after the prime minister’s older brother, Alexander Cameron, acting pro bono, had told the court that the state had failed to provide adequate representation for the men. Dozens of law firms were contacted but no barristers would take on the case over the profession’s long-running dispute over 30 per cent cuts.
In a landmark decision passed down today, Judge Anthony Leonard QC stayed the proceedings.
Delivering his ruling at Southwark Crown Court, he said it would clog up the courts to adjourn the case to next January.
And he said he had no reason to think the defendants would be able to find suitably qualified barristers to represent them if the case was adjourned given the long-running dispute over legal aid cuts.
Delivering his ruling, Judge Leonard said: "I have reminded myself that a stay should only be granted in exceptional circumstances and that in most cases an adjournment can cure what otherwise might amount to an abuse of the process of the court.
"I have taken into account that it is common ground between the parties that where the defendant is not at fault, in a case of this complexity the defendants could not receive a fair trial without advocates to represent them."
He said he had concerns that there was "no realistic prospect that in the future a suitable advocate will be available" to take up the case.
He added: "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.
"The knock-on effect on other trials, the waste of court resources and the need to disregard the Criminal Procedure Rules designed to protect the court system from abuse and to ensure that scarce resources are used to the best effect all, in my judgement, add to the reason why an adjournment should not be granted.
"Even if I am wrong about that, I further find that there is no realistic prospect the sufficient advocates would be available for this case to be tried in January 2015 from any of the sources available."
He said courts do not grant adjournments on a "speculative basis" and that it would be "unconscionable to put this trial off to September 2015 with the second trial being heard in 2016."
He added: "On what I know now, there is no basis on which I could find that the availability of advocates would be any different then than it would be in January 2015.
"In addition it is likely to lead to lead to a violation of the reasonable time requirement.
"In those circumstances I stay the proceeding against these five defendants."
Fraud cases can be notoriously complicated and require detailed preparation with the case against the five men amounting to more than 46,000 pages of documents, according to the judge’s ruling. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) which brought the case said it was considering an appeal but declined to comment further.
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.”
Profile: The PM's elder brother
Aside from the bragging rights of being the Prime Minister’s older brother by three years, Alexander Cameron QC is one of Britain’s top barristers. David has admitted to feeling “always a few steps behind” him at school.
Whilst at Eton, he was a member of the prestigious “Pop” club – an alliance of sociable and sporty sixth-form students at the school. He was called to the Bar in 1986, and became a Queen’s Counsel in 2003. He was named Crime Silk of the Year at the Chambers and Partners Bar Awards in 2007, and, in 2012, he represented multi-millionaire Hans Kristian Rausing, following the death of his wife, Eva.
He heads the 3 Raymond Buildings chambers, providing representation for Rebekah Brooks in the phone-hacking trial. He was the first barrister to be televised in the Court of Appeal.