* Operation Cotton case to resume after was halted in legal
aid fee row
* Appeal court tells government, legal profession to resolve
* FCA, Ministry of Justice, welcome court decision
(Adds fresh quotes from Ministry of Justice, lawyer comment,
By Kirstin Ridley
LONDON, May 21 England's Court of Appeal on
Wednesday overturned a judge's decision to halt a key fraud
trial and urged the government and legal profession to resolve a
deadlock that has left some defendants unable to find lawyers at
new legal aid rates.
Three senior judges ruled that a May 1 decision by Judge
Anthony Leonard to throw out the case brought by the Financial
Conduct Authority (FCA) because of a lack of trial lawyers
involved "errors of law or principle and ... was not
Dubbed Operation Cotton, it has become a test case for a
string of scheduled financial crime trials as lawyers and
Britain's Ministry of Justice (MoJ) squabble over sharp cuts the
government says it needs to impose to one of the world's most
expensive legal aid bills.
Arguing that the future of Britain's criminal justice system
is at stake, lawyers have staged unprecedented walkouts that
have disrupted trials across the country after a 30 percent drop
in the fees they can claim for taking on so-called Very High
Cost Cases (VHCC), which often run for weeks.
The Court of Appeal judges said although they could not
become involved in the dispute between the legal profession and
the MoJ, they were concerned about the affect on the criminal
justice system and urged both sides to hammer out a deal.
"... 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 judgment.
The FCA welcomed the decision and said it was pleased the
case could now proceed to trial. The MoJ said it was entirely
supportive of self-employed barristers, who represent defendants
in court, and had made "strenuous efforts" to reach an accord.
"We have always been clear the government will take the
necessary steps to ensure representation by putting in place
measures to cover the (VHCC) cases," a spokesperson said.
"Legal aid is a vital part of our justice system but we must
ensure it is sustainable and fair for those who need it, for
those who provide legal services as part of it and for the
taxpayer, who ultimately pays for it."
The FCA's case, over an alleged land-banking scam,
unravelled after five defendants failed to find senior lawyers
prepared to represent them in court at the new legal aid rates.
Alex Cameron, a senior lawyer and brother of Prime Minister
David Cameron, had represented the defendants free of charge and
argued they risked being unable to receive a fair trial if
suitable trial lawyers were not found promptly.
Lawyers said the thorny problem of trial lawyers boycotting
complex cases was far from resolved.
"...The problem at the heart of this significant fraud
trial, and many others close behind it, remains," said Gareth
Weetman, a senior lawyer at 7 Bedford Row.
"It is very likely that exactly the same lack of barristers
as arose in this case will arise in the others like it over the
The FCA alleges that between 2008 and 2011, the Operation
Cotton defendants were part of a scheme to buy, or pretend to
buy, sites that were divided into sub-plots and then
aggressively marketed to often vulnerable members of the public
under a series of false pretences.
(Reporting by Kirstin Ridley, editing by Jane Merriman and John