Law Reform

Judges can dismiss lawyers

PUBLISHED August 10, 2006

JUDGES will be given the power to dismiss lawyers in ever-lengthier terrorist and fraud trials under government proposals to curb the multi- million-pound costs of cases.

Barristers and solicitors would be ordered to stop representing their clients if judges believed that they were unable to cope with the volume of work involved in handling a big case.

The proposal comes amid mounting concern at the length of time it is taking for terror trials to start. In some incidences it is two years before a case is even brought to the trial opening.

The move was criticised last night by lawyers who said that it threatened to undermine a key legal right: that of suspects to choose their solicitors.

The proposals were published quietly by the Department for Constitutional Affairs without any press notice six days ago. They will apply to all cases lasting 41 days or more and will include major terror, organised crime and fraud trials.

?The proposals address concerns expressed by some stakeholders about recent terrorism trials, though they are relevant to a wider range of serious organised crime and fraud trials,? the consultation paper said. ?In such trials, delays can occur due to lack of capacity on the part of defence representatives or there may be a risk of conflict of interest if they are acting for a number of co- defendants, especially where charges of conspiracy have been brought.?

Under the plans, judges will be given a power to order the withdrawal of a defendant?s solicitor or barrister from the case. They could do so if there appeared to be a risk of a conflict of interest with other defendants in the trial, or where judges considered a barrister or solicitor lacked sufficient capacity and that this threatened the efficient running of the trial.

A judge would have the power to issue the order at any time before a trial or after it had started, but it is clear that the proposals are aimed at the pre-trial period.

The defendant would have three weeks to find another lawyer and would be barred from choosing a lawyer already involved in the case.

?The proposals are intended to strengthen the judge?s power to manage these long and complex trials,? the paper said.

Last month the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee highlighted the problem of small legal firms representing large numbers of terror suspects. It said that on more than one occasion a single firm with a small number of solicitors has represented double that number of suspects.

The committee said: ?We doubt therefore whether those suspects were represented to the highest legal standards: this of course raises questions of whether justice has been properly served.?

Defence lawyers said that the problem could be dealt with by professional rules. Mark Haslam, a partner with BCL Burton Copeland, a leading London firm of criminal defence solicitors, said that a balance had to be struck between a defendant?s right to choose his or her own solicitor against the need for cases to be properly and efficiently handled, thereby saving costs.

He said: ?On the issue of conflict of interest, the majority of solicitors know when there is a conflict of interest or potential conflict of interest. It is a professional issue.?

He added: ? To give such a decision-making power to a judge is a very serious departure.?