Bradford’s top judge has warned that he is bringing to an end sharp legal practices including the “tapping up” or “poaching” of defendants facing serious criminal charges such as murder, drug dealing and money laundering.

The city’s Recorder, Judge Richard Mansell QC, hit out at the high number of applications for a change of solicitor and barrister - up to ten a week - being made at Bradford Crown Court.

Speaking in open court, he pledged to end unnecessary, time-consuming and expensive applications for the transfer of a representation order.

“There is widespread suspicion in the criminal defence legal community that many of these applications are being initiated and driven not by the defendants but by the solicitors who stand to benefit from the transfer of representation,” he said.

Clients already well represented were being “tapped up” and “poached” with promises as to the level of service that would be offered by the new firm and/or the outcome of the case.

And it was even suspected that financial or other inducements were sometimes offered to the defendant to support the application,” Judge Mansell stated.

There was also “commodity trading” when both sets of solicitors were paid a significant proportion of the litigators’ fee that would otherwise be paid to just one.

Judge Mansell continued: “Far too many meritless applications to transfer representation are being made. At a conservative estimate, I deal with between five and ten every week.

“It is frankly inconceivable that criminal defence solicitors, whose legal aid franchises are only granted after rigorous checks and whose files are monitored regularly, could be failing so many clients to the point where they are criticised in so many of these applications.

“It is further inconceivable that conflicts of interest or professional embarrassment arise in practice as frequently as these applications would suggest.

“The processing of these applications takes an inordinate amount of my time and that of Bradford Crown Court’s hard-working, hard-pressed administrative staff.”

Where a transfer was granted, the cost to the taxpayer could rise by up to 160% of the fee paid to a single solicitor conducting the case from “cradle to grave.”

“If applications in these cases are allowed it is not a few hundred pounds but many thousands of pounds, often tens of thousands. This is what gives rise to the real suspicion that unscrupulous practices are being deployed by a small number of criminal legal aid firms who are prepared to take advantage of this anomaly in the legal aid regulations for financial gain,” Judge Mansell said.

“I find it appalling to contemplate the possibility that professional people, bound by a Code of Conduct and a duty to their clients and the court, might be engaging in such practice.

“However, it would certainly explain why it is in paper-heavy cases (murder, drugs and money laundering conspiracies and large-scale frauds) that defendants seem routinely to have their heads turned and make such applications for a transfer.”

He also criticised a practice to discharge or revoke the representation order on the understanding that a defendant would pay privately for their defence.

“The new phenomenon is almost exclusively in cases involving Albanian illegal immigrants arrested in raids on cannabis production facilities. There are many such cases presently going through the Crown Court at Bradford.

“Invariably, the application is made on behalf of the defendant by the solicitor who will be privately instructed. The solicitors are based either in Birmingham or the Greater London area.

“When asked where the monies have come from, given that the defendants are often claiming that they are the victims of modern slavery and owe approximately £15,000 to the human traffickers who facilitated their entry into the UK, the answer given to me is “family money.”

“Given that it is abject poverty in Albania which drives these defendants to enter the UK illegally, I find this implausible in the extreme.

“When asked what money laundering checks the solicitors have carried out, the answer I have received thus far is that the monies have been transferred by bank transfer.

“This is wholly inadequate for the purposes of money laundering compliance, since most laundered criminal money passes through bank accounts at some stage in a process known as layering,” Judge Mansell concluded.