In a robing room in a South London Court today I saw a lawyer who bent down and pumped his fist in the manner that Tim Henman did when he achieved the feat of winning a game of tennis. The cause? He had just found out that HHJ Leonard QC had stayed the ‘Operation Cotton’ case.
You may have heard of HHJ Leonard – he’s having a busy year, being the Judge for the Max Clifford case (he will be sentencing Mr Clifford tomorrow) and the DLT one (and probably the retrial), as well as Rolf Harris when his trial starts shortly. He is now a hero to criminal lawyers (and may well be on a dartboard in the MoJ).
In brief, last year the government announced they would be cutting the fees paid to lawyers in VHCC (Very High Cost Cases) by 30%. This would not be just for new cases, but would apply to all cases starting after April 2014. The first one to impacted by this was the ‘Operation Cotton’ case (formally known as R v Crawley & Others). In this case all the advocates involved said ‘sod it’ – they would not be working for the new rates (not surprising perhaps – try telling a plumber that you’re knocking a third off the agreed price when he’s halfway through unblocking your sink and see what happens).
This cause an obvious problem. These cases are very large and complex. The Judge ruled (and the Prosecution accepted) that the defendants would not have a fair trial if they didn’t have legal representation. The reason that they didn’t have legal representation was because the Government (the same government that was prosecuting them of course) did not make enough resources available. In light of that, unless there was an alternative way through, the case would have to be stopped – if you can’t have a fair trial, then you can’t be tried at all.
The Prosecution suggested using the Public Defender Service (PDS). This would be ok, but for the fact that there are simply not enough PDS lawyers to be able to take these cases on (yet – I imagine that there will be a recruitment drive shortly) in a reasonable time.
For those reasons (in short) the Judge concluded that he had no option but to stop the case.
What happens now? The prosecution have until tomorrow to decide whether they wish to appeal. The only other remedy is for the Government to decide that they have gone too far and reverse the 30% cuts, in whole or in part. Either way, the ball is in the Government’s court. And whatever happens, this is certainly one to watch.