FCA to appeal fraud trial decision

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A politically embarrassing decision to throw out a multi-million pound fraud trial on the grounds that legal aid cuts prevented defendants from securing barristers to represent them is to be challenged by the City watchdog bringing the case.

The Prime Minister's brother, Alexander Cameron QC, successfully argued that the case should be halted because the controversial Ministry of Justice (MoJ) reforms meant the five defendants could not find barristers of ''sufficient competence".

Judge Anthony Leonard QC stayed the proceedings at Southwark Crown Court yesterday, adding it would be a ''violation'' to allow the state more time to put right its ''failure to provide the necessary resources to permit a fair trial''.

However, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) today said it will seek leave to appeal the landmark and damning decision.

An FCA statement said: "The Financial Conduct Authority will be seeking leave to appeal in this matter."

The trial, which involves the alleged mis-selling of land to members of the public, is a so-called Very High Cost Case (VHCC). The Government has cut fees for such long and complex cases by 30% for barristers and solicitors.

Delivering his ruling, Judge Leonard said adjourning the case to next January, as requested by the prosecution, would clog up the courts.

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.

The judge said he had concerns 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."

Earlier this week, Mr Cameron, who declined to comment as he left the courtroom, had argued the case cut to a wider problem that there was only a finite pool of Queen's counsel barristers and very high demand for their services.

According to the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), each advocate who had signed a contract to undertake a VHCC case was presented by the Government with a choice either to accept a 30% cut in their fees or to terminate their contract. They chose to terminate their contracts.

Since then, the CBA understands that no barrister has signed a new contract to undertake a VHCC at the reduced rates.

The decision to stay the case means that the five men accused of being involved in a land banking scam will be free men - subject to any appeal by prosecutors.

Scott Crawley, Brendan Daley, Daniel Forsyth, Dale Walker and Arron Petrou were all charged with conspiracy to defraud and sat in the public gallery to hear the ruling. Forsyth was also charged with providing false information.

A further trial involving three other defendants which is linked to the case is still scheduled to take place.

The MoJ said the UK has one of the most expensive legal systems in the world, which even after reform
will still cost around £1.5 billion a year.

An MoJ spokeswoman 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."

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