Eight defendants in a £4.5m fraud case must prepare for trial even though none is represented by counsel, a judge at Southwark Crown Court instructed today.
In R v Crawley & Others, His Honour Judge Leonard said the appropriate time for any application to stay the case would be the first day of the trial, 28 April.
He said: 'I will hear an abuse argument if that becomes necessary, but we will work on the basis of being ready for trial with or without counsel.'
Although represented by solicitors, the eight have been unable to find counsel to take their cases since 30% fee cuts were introduced for very high costs cases. The case was subsequently downgraded to the graduated fee scheme, but still no counsel has been prepared to take the case.
Lee Adams, a solicitor advocate at London firm Hughmans who represents four of the defendants, told the court he had approached 60 chambers to find representation. A solicitor for one of the co-defendants had approached 70 chambers, as well as the Scottish and Northern Irish bars and the Public Defender Service, without success.
Despite representations by prosecutor Sean Larkin QC from QEB Hollis Whiteman that the defendants had the benefit of months of advice from their solicitors and counsel before the fee change, the judge agreed that the defendants should not be arraigned.
But he insisted that trial preparation by the defendants and the Crown continue, including the service of defence case statements and hearsay and bad character notices.
Leonard said the solicitors could undertake the work to prepare the case. He said he 'had difficulty' understanding their 'unwillingness' to progress the case without counsel, but he said he did not criticise them for it.
Neither did he criticise them for failing to find counsel, saying they had been down 'many paths' to find barristers to take the case.
But he said in the circumstances it is up to the court to progress the case.
Leonard ordered defence case statements to be filed by 7 February. After all defendants indicated that they would not serve them without counsel, Leonard warned that failure to do so could result in adverse inferences being drawn by the jury.
Nick Brett of London firm Brett & Co, who represents Crawley, told the court it was not the case that the solicitors are 'unwilling' to assist; rather they are concerned from an 'ethical position' about prejudicing their clients' cases.
Leonard said the circumstances put an added burden on the Crown, but noted that the prosecution has a full legal team with a silk and two other counsel, so it must prepare for trial.
Larkin, for the Crown, suggested that the solicitors try instructing solicitor higher court advocates or employed advocates. He also asked that the matter be adjourned to a date after 17 February - the deadline of a current recruitment campaign by the Public Defender Service - by which time, he suggested, the service would know if it had a silk available to take the case.
Bailing all eight defendants, Leonard warned them that on the next occasion they must be prepared to deal with their defences, witness requirements and give notice of any expert evidence, whether or not they are represented. 'I will look to you to help prepare for trial if your are not represented,' he told them.
The matter was adjourned to 17 February. All eight defendants deny the charges.