A fraud case brought by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) was dealt a lifeline by the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) after it 'declassified' the high cost case to attract barristers who initially refused to represent the defendants on recently reduced fees.
The LAA downgraded the £4.5m fraud trial from 'very high cost case' to a 'graduated fee matter', hoping to get on board barristers who refused to accept the 30% pay cut on very high cost cases introduced by the government in December, according to a report in a legal industry paper.
The boiler room case, R v Crawley & Others, which is the first prosecution to be brought by the FCA, involves eight defendants who were charged with with conspiracy to defraud and carrying out a regulated activity without authorisation, in April last year.
The charges were brought following FCA investigations into land banking activity surrounding three companies believed to have taken more than £5m from UK investors between 2008 and 2011.
Law firm Hughmans partner Lee Adams, who represents four of the defendants, told the Law Society Gazette: "This is extraordinary. I have never seen anything like it and never known a very high cost case to be declassified."
He said that he had contacted 17 sets of chambers, but had been unable to find counsel of appropriate skill to represent his clients, given the reduced fees.
When he asked for a suspension of the case at a hearing at Southwark Crown Court last November, on the grounds of a 'fair trial', he was told by the judge that the defendants may have to represent themselves (however) "much it will cost the country" while a delay of the trial to find barristers was not granted.
The case is now adjourned to help Adams find representation for his clients under the alternative fee regime.
Adams said he was still not sure whether any barristers would respond to the new case. He explained that, in graduated fee cases, the maximum counsel can be paid for without applying to the LAA for enhanced payment, was up to 10,000 pages of evidence.
This case involved 100,000 pages of evidence, he said, meaning "I will have to ask counsel to undertake a case of 100,000 pages with no certainty they will be paid for 90,000 of them".
The case has been split into two trials - the first, with five defendants, is listed for trial in April with a time estimate of two and a half to three months. The second is listed for trial in January 2015.
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