Law Soc slams government plans for fraud trials

The Law Society and solicitors have hit out at new government proposals suggesting that judges be allowed to dismiss defendants’ advisers in very high cost fraud trials.

The proposal was made in a Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA) consultation paper published last week (4 August) on judicial powers to manage conflict of interest and capacity issues in very high cost criminal cases.

The paper proposes that judges should be given “the power to order the withdrawal of a defendant’s representative where there appears to be a risk of conflict of interest or where it is considered that the barrister or solicitor lacks sufficient capacity which threatens the efficient conduct and progress of the trial.”

The consultation only concerns Very High Cost Cases (VHCCs) scheduled to last over 41 days, which tend to be high-value fraud, money laundering and other white-collar crime issues.

Solicitors said the proposals are contrary to Law Society regulations, and that judges were not best-placed to make such a decision.

“The decision as to whether there’s a conflict of interest must be down to the solicitor,” said John Harding, a partner at Kingsley Napley. “If the judge has a problem with that, then he ought to refer it to the Law Society.”

The Law Society supported the profession’s views, saying: “Solicitors are professionals who are well versed in making decisions in line with their professional duties, which includes not acting where there is a conflict of interest. It is incorrect to assume that a firm representing more than one client is necessarily breaching conflict of interest rules.”

The DCA is asking for responses from organisations including the Bar Council, the Law Society and the Legal Services Commission. The consultation ends on 27 Octber 2006.