Fraud trial lawyers 'not underpaid'

Lawyers in complex fraud trials are not underpaid and the Government is taking steps to prevent the collapse of cases, Justice minister Simon Hughes said.

Simon Hughes acknowledged that cuts to legal aid are difficult
Simon Hughes acknowledged that cuts to legal aid are difficult

The Liberal Democrat, who was a critic of the legal aid cuts before entering government, said the row over very high cost cases (VHCCs) did not involve "hard-up" lawyers at the start of their careers.

The comments came after the Prime Minister's brother Alexander Cameron QC successfully argued that a multimillion-pound fraud trial should be thrown out because the controversial Ministry of Justice (MoJ) reforms meant the five defendants could not find barristers of ''sufficient competence".

Mr Hughes, a barrister before he became an MP, acknowledged that the cuts were difficult and "I would rather not have them".

But he said: "In very high cost cases, people on this sort of case that was stayed this week, the QCs would be paid £100,000. They are not underpaid, they are not small amounts of money."

He told BBC Radio 5 Live's Pienaar's Politics: "The junior counsel would be paid about £60,000 for this sort of case.

"So we are not talking about people at the beginning of their career scrimping around, hard-up for money.

"This case, we believe, could have had lawyers to represent the defendants. It would have needed a bit of time, in the end the judge decided he was not willing to allow that time to happen.

"Measures are being put in place by the department to make sure that we don't have cases not going ahead because there isn't a lawyer."

The Financial Conduct Authority, which brought the case which was abruptly halted at Southwark Crown Court, is seeking leave to appeal.

According to the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), each advocate who had signed a contract to undertake a VHCC case was presented by the Government with a choice either to accept a 30% cut in their fees or to terminate their contract. They chose to terminate their contracts.

Since then, the CBA understands that no barrister has signed a new contract to undertake a VHCC at the reduced rates.

Mr Hughes said: "When there are hard times, people have to take reductions in some of their pay and I'm afraid that's happened to some of the lawyers.

"I know it's difficult but it's not impossible to manage."