The legal aid reforms in England and Wales have been a pressing issue over the past several months. At start of this year, the nation witnessed barristers strike for the first time in history. The action was taken in the face of the current government’s plans to cut legal aid by a further 30 per cent. This rare occasion was done in fear that the profession’s best talent would not be sustained by the reduction in funding and would therefore put the criminal justice system at risk.
More recently the OpCotton case, concerning conspiracy to defraud, had a Crown Court decision to stay the trial overturned in the Court of Appeal. Had the appeal been successful, the defendants would have been acquitted as a direct consequence of the Bar’s resistance to the new fee structure under the reform of legal aid.
The latest development is that the Public Defender Service (PDS), set up in 2001 as part of the Legal Aid Agency, has employed three more QCs in a suspected bid by the Ministry of Justice to tackle the issue of fees for a Very High Costs Case (VHCC) like the OpCotton trial above. Their hope is to fill the gap created by the Bar’s refusal to take cases since the cuts to legal aid were introduced, and to prevent major fraud trials from being dropped due to unrepresented defendants.
The new recruits include former leader of the South-Eastern circuit and member of London’s Fountain Court Chambers Stephen Leslie QC, Andrew Lamb QC from Blacks Chambers, Edinburgh and John Burton from 3 Temple Gardens, London. Leslie and Lamb have joined this week while Burton will join in August. Taking the three new QCs into account, this brings the total number of QCs employed by the PDS to seven. The service also employs 18 junior advocates.
Nigel Lithman QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, has suggested that the way VHCCs are paid for may also be revised and that a ‘large group’ of counsel dealing in VHCCs has been called together by the chair of the Bar Council to ‘road-test any proposals’.
Ultimately, Lithman believes ‘real progress’ will only happen once the Bar and Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling resume discussions on how to find a solution to this challenging dilemma.
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