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Legal aid row could see serious criminals escaping justice

Thousands of barristers and legal professionals in Westminster in March. Photo: Jeff Moore/Empics Entertainment

A serious fraud trial was halted by a judge today due to an ongoing argument over legal aid cuts.

Legal expert Merry Neal warns there's a risk serious criminals could walk free if the row is not resolved soon.

Today's decision by a judge to formerly stop a serious fraud case over a lack of representation for the defendants is an exceptional step. It demonstrates the serious repercussions of the coalition’s war on legal aid.

What's more, the problems for the government are not likely to end with today's decision.

There are a number of other complex criminal trials due to be heard in the coming months in which the defendants do not have barristers to represent them.

It is likely that these cases will also be stayed if the protest continues, which could lead to people who may be guilty of very serious crimes walking free from court.

To put it another way, a number of victims of crime may be deprived of the opportunity to see the perpetrators responsibly prosecuted if the current state of affairs persists.

The Ministry of Justice, led by Chris Grayling, says Britain has one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world. Credit: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire

Another alarming factor is that it is the most expensive criminal cases which are being affected in this way, leading to huge waste of taxpayers’ money.

While the Government backed down over further cuts following mass protests by the legal profession, it has refused to back down on the 30% cut to legal aid for the most costly criminal cases.

That has led to members of the Bar refusing to accept the work.

As a result, the Prime Minister’s brother, Alex Cameron QC, appeared for the defendants in this case free of charge at a hearing earlier this week.

He stated that the government “has failed to provide adequate representation to allow the trial to take place".

Today, Judge Leonard QC stated that he felt compelled to stop the case because, in his view, to allow further delay for the State to attempt to put right its failure "amounts to a violation of the process of this court".

The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) is panicking. It is desperately trying to staff its Public Defender Service adequately to provide barristers for the defendants in these cases, but it has so far failed to do so.

The MOJ has refused to back down from its stance on the 30% cuts – but so has the legal profession.

Today’s judgment is a blow to the government. As more of these cases come up for trial in the next few months, something has to give.

Otherwise, the ability of the state to hold people accountable for their crimes will be called into question.

Merry Neal is a legal expert and blogger. Her views do not represent those of ITV News.