THe collapse of a multi-million pound fraud trial after an intervention from the Prime Minister’s brother has been described as the “canary in the mineshaft” by lawyers campaigning against cuts to legal aid.
Alexander Cameron, a respected barrister, successfully argued that the trial should not go ahead because the five defendants could not get access to barristers suitable for the case.
The Ministry of Justice insisted the problems are only arising because barristers are refusing to take cases for lower fees.
Bill Waddington, from Williamsons Solicitors, in Hull, and chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, said: “This is a bit like the canary in the mineshaft, or the first to keel over.
“It is symptomatic of the overall collapse of access to justice and of a system close to meltdown.”
Mr Waddington said lawyers had been warning since the beginning of last year that funding cuts to legal aid would lead to problems in the court room.
The trial which collapsed yesterday at Southwark Crown Court was a so-called Very High Cost Case (VHCC).
The Government has cut fees for such long and complex cases by 30 per cent for barristers and solicitors.
Judge Anthony Leonard QC 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.
At an earlier hearing, Mr Cameron, who had agreed to represent the five defendants free of charge in the application to stop the case, had argued that the controversial Ministry of Justice reforms meant his legally-aided clients could not find barristers of “sufficient competence”.
According to the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), each lawyer who has signed a contract to undertake a VHCC case has been presented by the Government with a choice either to accept a 30 per cent 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 fee rates.
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.
“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.
“The Government has made sure that the Public Defender Service has a number of suitably qualified advocates who could act in this case.”
Asked if he was embarrassed about the case, the Prime Minister said: “We have an independent judicial system in this country and that’s an important part of having a free country.
“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.”