LONDON (AP) — A British judge halted a complex fraud case Thursday because the five defendants couldn't find qualified lawyers willing to represent them under new rates offered by the government for legal aid.
Judge Anthony Leonard's decision Thursday could have wider ramifications for the country's courts, with several fraud cases in danger of collapsing if lawyers refuse to accept the new rate structure. Prosecutors had hoped to delay the case, but Leonard said he saw no basis to suspect that skilled lawyers would be available — even with more time.
"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," he wrote in his decision.
The judge's decision means the five men accused of being involved in an alleged property scam are free — subject to any appeal by prosecutors.
Britain's government has slashed billions from public spending in the name of deficit reduction — arguing that its legal aid system is among the world's most expensive. It has planned to cut the legal aid budget by 220 million pounds ($360 million) a year through 2019.
But the Criminal Bar Association has argued that the new rates will discourage attorneys from taking on criminal cases, where defendants often rely on state funding for legal representation. The association says the average legal aid earnings of barristers — lawyers who argue in court — was around 36,000 pounds ($59,000) after services tax and expenses. The cuts mean their income will fall 30 percent.
Lawyers for the defendants said they approached about 70 sets of barristers' chambers, seeking to find someone qualified and willing to undertake this type of complex case. They were unsuccessful. Alex Cameron, the brother of Prime Minister David Cameron, had represented the defendants on a pro-bono basis to argue that they could not get a fair trial under the circumstances.
The prime minister refused to get drawn into the controversy.
"My brother has made arguments on behalf of his clients in court and the judge has made a decision. That's the process. That's the way it should be," he said.
The Financial Conduct Authority, which brought the case, declined to comment on the ruling.
Philip Smith, a partner at the firm Tuckers, which represents one of the defendants, said others facing criminal trials also could have their cases thrown out if they are not properly represented.
"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," he said. "That means with equality of arms whereby you have the best barristers on both sides."
Smith warned that at least eight other complex criminal cases, including some relating to the scandal related to the fixing of the Libor, the London Interbank Offered Rate, have also so far failed to find barristers of sufficient expertise to represent the defendants in court.
The Serious Fraud Office declined to comment on Leonard's ruling, as it was not their case. However, there are no concerns at the moment about barristers in the Libor matter.