Page last updated at 18:33 GMT, Tuesday, 6 May 2008 19:33 UK

Lawyers refuse drug assets case

Legal documents
It was estimated that the case would take a month to prepare

A drugs offender has escaped having about 1.5m of his assets seized because he could not find a barrister to represent him for a legal aid fee.

The man's solicitor said he had contacted 30 barristers' chambers, but none would take the case on.

Proceedings were abandoned after a judge ruled that it would be unfair on the man if he had no representation.

Ministers say they are exploring ways to improve the way legal aid is provided in asset confiscation cases.

BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw said the case highlighted a gap in the law, which allowed the man, who had been jailed for plotting to supply cannabis, to hold on to assets estimated at 4.5 million.

His assets had been frozen while the Crown Prosecution Service began proceedings to confiscate one-third of them, arguing they were the product of the man's criminal lifestyle.

Rates 'too low'

The offender, who cannot be identified, was unable to use the frozen assets to pay for a barrister as that is prohibited under the Proceeds of Crime Act.

His solicitor, Jansen Versfeld, then contacted legal aid barristers to see if they would represent him for 175 a day.

"Over the course of 12 months, I approached about 30 sets of chambers in London, Leeds and Sheffield," said Mr Versfeld.

"The response that came back from the senior clerk was: 'Sorry, we are certainly not going to touch that case on those rates.'"

The legal aid fee is paid for each day spent in court and there is no payment for preparation - which would have taken a month in this case.

Working group

Judge David Mole QC ruled in March that without representation the man would not get a fair hearing and he halted proceedings.

The Bar Council warned that more cases would be stopped unless barristers' fees were increased, particularly in the most complex criminal trials.

The Ministry of Justice said fees for confiscation hearings increased by 100 last year.

But the department has set up a working group to find ways to "target" legal aid more effectively in exceptional confiscation cases.


SEE ALSO
Legal aid bill 'highest in world'
24 Sep 07 |  UK Politics
Lawyers' action to hit busy court
05 May 08 |  Scotland
Q&A: Legal aid changes
19 Mar 07 |  UK

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