Trials delayed as lawyers demand help

TWO criminal trials have been delayed as lawyers fight for the Supreme Court to force Victoria Legal Aid to pay for more help for their clients.

Barristers for two alleged criminals - who are both funded by Legal Aid - applied simultaneously to their respective judges to stay their cases until Legal Aid could provide a solicitor to instruct them throughout their trials, which they said on Wednesday was necessary to ensure they would be fair.

The accused men cannot be named for legal reasons. Legal Aid has capped fees for a solicitor for the defendants to one day of each trial, in line with sweeping cuts it made last month.

This is the first legal test of the changes, made in response to unprecedented demand that Legal Aid expects will blow out its budget by more than $3.1 million this financial year.

A spokesman for state Attorney-General Robert Clark reiterated that Canberra should boost its legal aid funding.

Under the Victorian Criminal Procedure Act, the court can order Legal Aid to provide representation for defendants. It can also adjourn a criminal trial until this has been provided if satisfied the person cannot afford a lawyer and a fair trial cannot be ensured without it.

Gavan Meredith, the barrister for a man accused of murder, threatened to withdraw from his case if he was unsuccessful. He said the case was complicated and involved many witnesses, forensic evidence and hundreds of pages of transcripts.

When the judge, who also cannot be named, asked him what he would do if he believed ''that you are unable to do your client justice'', Mr Meredith said he would have to seek advice. But he added: ''I would have thought … barring advice to the contrary, that I would have to withdraw.''

The judge will hand down his decision on Monday.

A Legal Aid spokeswoman said the statutory authority did not believe ''automatically funding two lawyers for every criminal trial is the most appropriate use of legal-aid funding.''

She said while the law gave the court power to order it to fund legal representation for serious criminal trials, it did not allow it to determine the number of lawyers to be assigned or how much they would be paid.

''We look forward to the court's clarification of this matter,'' she said.

Prosecutor Mark Gibson said the accused man was legally represented because Legal Aid had allocated both a barrister and a solicitor to him.

Meanwhile, barrister Andrew Jackson said a solicitor's role was ''integral'' to a criminal trial and their absence would create an ''imbalance'' between the Crown and the accused.

''[The role] is not simply to convey something, go and receive information, it is … to be involved in the forensic decisions that come up from time to time in virtually every criminal trial.''

The judge adjourned the case until Friday to allow arguments to be heard in the other court challenge.

This story Trials delayed as lawyers demand help first appeared on The Age.