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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 May 2005, 19:24 GMT 20:24 UK
Cutting the cost of criminal trials
Lord Falconer
Lord Falconer's proposals are opposed by barristers

The Lord Chancellor has unveiled plans under which lawyers would bid for legal aid contracts and have to foot the bill if a criminal case lasted longer than expected.

Home Affairs correspondent Danny Shaw explains the background.

It is ten in the morning, the courtroom is packed and the trial is due to begin - but nothing happens.

The minutes tick by.

Then the judge appears. There has been a delay, he says, because the defendant has not arrived from the prison where he is being held on remand.

Eventually, the case gets under way, only for it to be halted when a juror falls ill.

Then there is more disruption because the prosecution has not disclosed evidence on time to the defence.

A complex legal point arises, causing more delays, then a witness is reluctant to testify, so the jury is sent home for a couple of days while the problem is resolved.

When the witness agrees to give evidence via a video-link, the technology does not work.

Whatever his reasoning, action will be welcomed by the public, who react with dismay at stories of courtroom inefficiency and bungling
Danny Shaw

These are the kinds of problems which affect criminal trials every day - and represent some of the reasons why cases drag on for too long, adding to the cost to taxpayers.

Every extra day almost inevitably means more money from the legal aid budget, which is used to fund defendants' solicitors and barristers.

Not surprisingly, the government wants to drive down costs and streamline cases.

Some of its proposals - improving the way trials are managed and getting defence lawyers and the Crown Prosecution Service to identify agreed facts in advance - are uncontroversial, although achieving them may take time and patient negotiation.

Far more tricky is the plan for a system of contracts which lawyers will have to adhere to when they take on a case. The idea is that if a trial over-runs then legal firms will foot the bill rather than taxpayers.

A similar scheme is earmarked to start in London this year but has already run into fierce opposition from solicitors and legal groups, who complain that it will put small high street legal practices out of business and reduce the quality of advice.

The latest plans have also been given short shrift - notably by barristers, who are likely to be hardest hit of all.

The collapse of the costly Jubilee line trial raised many questions
At the root of the problem is a small number of cases - about 1,300 - which eat up almost half of criminal legal aid spending. The most expensive trials of all, classed as "very high cost criminal cases" (VHCCCs), account for 48m.

These cases tend to involve numerous defendants. Often they are accused of crimes such as serious fraud or terrorist conspiracies. Some may have been charged with multiple murders, or offences allegedly committed abroad.

The government and the legal profession have been trying for months to find ways to cut the costs of VHCCCs.

Some progress has been made but the collapse in March of the two-year Jubilee Line fraud trial, at a cost of 60m, indicated that tougher reforms were needed.

Perhaps Lord Falconer was also stung into action by reports that 14m was spent in legal aid on the case. Perhaps he is pre-empting the findings of an inquiry into the affair by the Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate.

Whatever his reasoning, action will be welcomed by the public, who react with dismay at stories of courtroom inefficiency and bungling.

Whether barristers should take the blame is another matter.

60m fraud case collapse probed
23 Mar 05 |  London

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