Legal aid crisis stops double murder trial

A DOUBLE murder trial has been halted, with a Supreme Court judge warning many more will be delayed until cash-strapped Victoria Legal Aid eases its cuts to help guidelines.

This is the second serious criminal trial delayed for this reason in a week.

Justice Terence Forrest ordered on Monday that the trial be postponed until Legal Aid could provide an instructing solicitor for the defendant for the duration of the trial. Justice Forrest said that the case, which involved up to 78 prosecution witnesses, was complex and that the court could not ensure a fair trial for the accused man with his present legal team.

The judge said that other criminal trials that needed an instructing solicitor to proceed fairly should not begin ''until the unfairness is cured''.

''If I am correct, the unfortunate effect of VLA's cost constraints is that many criminal trials will be postponed for as long as the cost-cutting protocol survives. This is incompatible with the proper, timely and just administration of criminal justice,'' he said.

The accused man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was last year given a grant of legal aid - including a barrister and a solicitor - after he ran out of money to pay his private lawyer.

Last month, VLA made wide-ranging cuts to its eligibility guidelines to save money, capping fees for solicitors to a total of one day in serious criminal trials. It expects its funding crisis to result in a more than $3.1 million shortfall this financial year.

The defendant's barrister, Gavan Meredith, had applied for a stay until VLA could provide a solicitor for the whole trial, which he said was necessary to ensure it would be fair.

Under the Victorian Criminal Procedure Act, the court can order VLA to provide legal representation for defendants.

Supreme Court Justice Lex Lasry last week ruled that a separate case, while not complex, also required an instructing solicitor for the duration of the trial.

VLA's director of research Nicole Rich said it was ''not in the public interest for trials to be stayed indefinitely when the accused is legally represented''.

The defendants could have applied for a second barrister but had not. In other states, the trials ''would be going ahead. Barristers routinely run trials for accused without instructing solicitors, especially for non-complex matters'', she said.

''We do not believe that Victorian taxpayers should have to automatically pay for not one but two lawyers for every day of every trial.''

Law Institute of Victoria president Reynah Tang said instructing solicitors were provided in other states, and funding an additional barrister would have cost more than an instructing solicitor for the trial.

''A right to a fair trial requires an instructing solicitor and we expect this argument to be raised in a number of other cases both in the Supreme and County Court,'' Mr Tang said.

He said VLA should restore its guidelines on solicitor fees and called on state and federal governments to boost funding for the organisation to meet growing demand.

A spokesman for state Attorney-General Robert Clark supported VLA's decision ''to question whether solicitors are needed in all trials in Victoria''.

This story Legal aid crisis stops double murder trial first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.