Maxwell case: the price is right : Another View

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The Independent Online
Public reaction to the cost of the Maxwell brothers' trial - which some believe will eventually be more than £10m - has been predictably hostile. No one likes to see that sort of money going to lawyers. But in my view, the price is right. We must keep things in perspective if we want to maintain the right to a fair trial. The Maxwell brothers face serious fraud charges. They did not choose to bring them: the state did. The state began a complex case with a mountain of documents. In the process, it no doubt spent a lot itself. The state calculated that, despite the trial length and costs, proceedings were in the public interest. The defendants had no say in this.

It is not the Maxwell brothers' fault that trials cost money, nor that they are entitled to legal aid to defend themselves - as they are. They, like everyone else the state chooses to prosecute, are innocent until proven guilty. It is in no one's interests for them to get less than a fair trial. Above all, no one wants them defending themselves, with all the drawbacks that entails.

We don't know how the estimated £10m cost of the trial has been reached - one can only presume it includes prosecution costs. What we do know is that £4,028,008, including VAT (or £3,427,709 without it), has so far been paid on account to defence lawyers- the teams of solicitors and barristers who have been working for months to meet the prosecution case.

Solicitors charge hourly rates and have large disbursements - they must pay expert witnesses and countless other costs as they go along. They are highly skilled. They need teams of staff to help them. They have high office running costs. They will have been doing no other work. Their rates are scrutinised at the end of the case by the court and allowed only if reasonable. Not surprisingly, the court takes into account the interest of the taxpayer.

The defence barristers will not charge hourly rates but receive a basic fee for all the preparation work and the first day's appearance in court. Given the importance and high demands of the case, the months of work and length of trial, this may be£100,000 or more for the QCs - people at the top of their profession and hand-picked for the job. After that they will get about £600 a day. They, too, have practice expenses to meet. They will have done no other work. Their fees - far less than the solicitors' - will be scrutinised by the court and allowed only if reasonable.

Trials like this are a major undertaking. It is vital that they are done properly and competently. But, like hospital operations or public demonstrations, they are expensive. On the other hand, does anyone know what the trial of OJ Simpson is costing?

Peter Birts QC is chairman of the Bar Council legal aid and fees committee.

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