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Halted trial reveals true impact of legal aid cuts

A judge has ordered a serious fraud trial to be halted after the defendants failed to obtain legal representation.

The true cost of the cuts to legal aid was revealed at Southwark Crown Court today after a judge was forced to halt the trial of eight men on charges of fraud because they could not obtain adequate legal representation. Judge Anthony Leonard told the court that despite contacting over 70 sets of barristers’ chambers, solicitors representing the men had been unable to find any counsel willing to represent them in court.

In an interesting development, Alex Cameron QC, brother of Prime Minister David Cameron, offered his services free of charge to the defendants as part of a bid to halt the case on the grounds that, without a barrister, it would be impossible for them to get a fair trial. This was something the judge himself appeared to agree with; noting that to allow the case to proceed would be a “violation” of the legal process.

Although there have been repeated warnings from solicitors and barristers that the cuts in fees paid for legal aid work, averaging around 30%, would deter highly qualified lawyers from taking on these types of cases, the collapse of the trial today has been the first high-profile demonstration of this.

Wake up call to politicians

Outside court, one of the defendant's lawyers said the collapse of the trial should be a "wake-up call" to ministers. "It is in the interests of justice for both sides that serious and complex cases of this sort should be properly prosecuted and properly tried," said solicitor Philip Smith. Mr Smith also said that the intervention by the Prime Minister’s brother on behalf of the defendants had played a key role in convincing the judge in the case that the trial could no longer go ahead.

Here at Canter Levin & Berg, the solicitors in our Criminal Law team have been closely involved in protests against the cuts to legal aid in criminal cases. Our solicitor Richard Hughes spoke about the collapse of this trial and how the legal aid cuts were already affecting people’s ability to get legal representation if they found themselves facing an allegation of criminal behaviour:

"As a Criminal Law Solicitor, I'm pleased to see that the judiciary have recognised the necessity of proper legal representation as vital to a fair trial. Hopefully the government will have to rethink and accept that their misguided cuts will delay court cases, and thus justice for all parties concerned."

You can read the full text of the judgement in this case here.

By Richard Hughes