Welsh firm wins legal aid appeal over ‘substantial case management’

A Welsh firm has won the right to an additional legal aid payment after a costs judge found that ‘substantial case management’ qualified as the commencement of a trial.

Costs judge Whalan allowed the appeal and directed that Martyn Prowel Gartside Solicitors’ litigators’ graduated fees scheme claim should be assessed as a trial and not a cracked trial.

The Cardiff firm represented a defendant charged with alleged conspiracy to supply amphetamine, a controlled Class B drug. On the first day of the listing, the trial judge was told there were legal matters which, upon determination, may reduce the length of the trial.

The firm argued that the prosecution’s 89-page timeline document ‘contained evidence that was not relevant to the charge against the defendant and should not form part of the case against him’.

An agreement was reached as to the extent of the involvement of the defendant which was set out in a document and signed by counsel. The defendant changed his plea to guilty and was sentenced in September 2021 based on the involvement agreed at court in July 2021.

The judge said: ‘The timeline document produced by the prosecution was subject to complex and detailed discussion and negotiation over a period of two days.’

He described the negotiations as ‘substantive’, which produced an agreement that ‘reduced significantly the ambit of the defendant’s criminality’.

The indictment alleged receipt of 105-165kgs of amphetamine. In the agreed basis of plea the receipt was 30kgs. The defendant, having changed his plea, was sentenced to 48 months’ imprisonment, but would ‘probably’ have faced a six-year sentence for the conviction on the drafted indictment.

The judge said the hearing in July should be assessed as a trial as ‘the court dealt with substantial matters of case management, meaning that the trial had begun in a meaningful sense’.

He added that the length of the two-day hearing was more consistent with substantial case management.

Allowing the appeal and awarding £1,000 costs, as well as the appropriate additional payment plus £100 on appeal, the costs judge said: ‘Most cases may require some discussion and amendment to the admissible evidence, but it is not in every such case that these changes lead to an agreed variation to the alleged criminality. This, it seems to me, is the difference in cases like this between “case management” and “substantial case management”.’