London: Britain's financial regulator on Wednesday won an appeal against a court decision to throw out a landmark fraud case because some of the defendants had been unable to find lawyers willing to represent them in court at new reduced legal aid rates.
The Court of Appeal said the previous ruling involved errors of law or principle and was not reasonable. It ordered the case to be resumed in the lower Crown Court.
The decision by a Crown Court judge to dismiss the Financial Conduct Authority's case over an alleged land-banking scam has become the focus of a heated debate over senior lawyers' pay after government cuts of around 30 per cent to the legal aid budget for very high cost cases.
The Court of Appeal judges said although they could not become involved in a dispute between lawyers and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) about appropriate salaries, it was concerned about the affect of the row on the country's criminal justice system and urged both sides to resolve their differences.
" ... it is of fundamental importance that the MoJ led by the Lord Chancellor [Justice Minister Chris Grayling] and the professions continue to try to resolve the impasse that presently stands in the way of the delivery of justice in the most complex of cases: this will require effort by both sides.
"The maintenance of a criminal justice system of which we can be proud depends on a sensible resolution of the issues that have arisen," they said in their judgement.
The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), caught in the middle of the protracted row, welcomed the decision, said it was committed to pursue criminal action in appropriate cases and was pleased the case could now proceed to trial.
The FCA's case, dubbed Operation Cotton, unravelled after five defendants failed to find senior lawyers prepared to represent them in court at new legal aid rates.
Prosecutors of financial crime cases are concerned that the dispute between the so-called Bar (barristers) and MoJ, which has sparked mass walkouts by lawyers, will leave some defendants unable to receive a fair trial if lawyers boycott so-called VHCCs (Very High Cost Cases) because of legal aid cuts.