MINISTERS WE'LL TACKLE SPEEDBOAT LEGAL AID LOOPHOLE
AN URGENT review was ordered last night into the loophole letting a killer claim legal aid while on the run. Despite being a fugitive, Jack Shepherd, 31, has been granted public money to challenge his six-year prison sentence for killing his date on a speedboat trip. Justice Secretary David Gauke has told officials to examine legal aid rules in such cases and last night the Solicitor General joined MPs in calling for reform. Home Secretary Sajid Javid also intervened to say it was a ‘heart-breaking’ situation.
Praising the Mail, which is offering a
£25,000 reward to bring Shepherd to justice, Mr Javid appealed to those harbouring the killer of Charlotte Brown, 24, to turn him in.
‘ Her parents have suffered enough and Mr Shepherd should give himself up right away,’ he said. ‘I will be meeting Charlotte’s parents in the coming weeks and will do all I can to support them.’
Police admit Shepherd could be anywhere in the world and they have no ‘tangible clues’ as to his whereabouts. Prosecutors failed to have his passport confiscated and he fled before his trial.
The reckless womaniser killed Miss Brown while he was showing off his defective speedboat on a drunken dash down the Thames in central London. When it flipped over, he called for help only for himself. Miss Brown, a business consultant from Clacton in Essex, died after being pulled unconscious from the water.
Yesterday her grieving family vowed not to give up fighting to track down the man who robbed her of her life in December 2015. Her father Graham Brown said: ‘She was a young woman with everything in front of her. He stole that. She’s never going to have a husband, children, her dream career – all because of him.’
Recalling the moment a policeman broke the news, he added: ‘I threw my phone down and screamed. It was the most awful, awful thing.’ He said that when he was shown his daughter’s lifeless body, ‘I stood over her and I opened her eyes. I looked into them, into my daughter’s eyes for the last time, and just said “Why?”. That moment will stay with me for the rest of my life.’
Miss Brown’s mother, Roz Wickens, said of Shepherd: ‘He needs to serve his sentence. His actions killed my daughter. If it was not for Jack Shepherd taking her out that night, Charlotte would still be with us now.’
Shepherd’s lawyers told his trial he was too cowardly to face Miss Brown’s devastated family at the Old Bailey.
He went on the run in March last year, four months before he was tried in his absence and found guilty of manslaughter. Under a European Court of Human Rights precedent being on the run is no bar to an appeal.
Earlier this week, it was announced that Shepherd, originally from Exeter, had been granted the right to appeal – with the public having to foot the bill through legal aid. Yesterday the Justice Secretary ordered an investigation into the loophole.
A source close to Mr Gauke said he ‘quite understands and sympathises with the public concern here about a convicted killer fleeing the country and having his appeal paid for by the taxpayer and has asked officials to look at this’.
The source added that the situation was not clear cut, with the minister anxious not to spark ‘unintended consequences’ that could make it harder to try criminals in their absence. ‘In exploring this he is clear that we must not do anything that would make judges less likely to proceed with a trial for an absent defendant because of fear they would not be properly represented throughout the whole process,’ the source said.
‘He is particularly mindful that victims’ families could be left without justice for years where courts consider themselves unable to try an absent defendant.’ Shepherd could be using bank accounts and phones police cannot trace, Scotland Yard has admitted.
From his bolt-hole, the convicted killer is directing his London lawyers to prepare his legal aidfunded appeal.
The Government’s second most senior lawyer, Solicitor General Robert Buckland, called for action. The Conservative MP, who is a senior barrister, challenged the Ministry of Justice to examine the issue, saying: ‘This is a matter that deserves careful consideration.’
His predecessor Lord Garnier QC said the rules needed to change to prevent ‘ beyond cynical’ scenarios like Shepherd’s.
Former Deputy Speaker Nigel Evans, who was denied legal aid when fighting unfounded claims of rape and sexual assault, branded the situation ‘absolutely bonkers’.
The 61-year-old Tory MP, who had to spend his entire £130,000 life savings fighting the 2014 case before being found not guilty of all charges, said: ‘It’s making a mockery of our legal aid system that someone at large when they should be in prison can get it – while other people who have applied legitimately are refused it. This guy is an outlaw and he’s now abusing the system in order to get taxpayers’ money to defend the indefensible.
‘A lot of innocent people through no fault of their own are having to pay their own legal bills to defend themselves, yet someone can claim legal aid to use the system to try to avoid paying for his crime.
‘This is nonsense, it’s barmy. If you are outside the law, why should you try to use the law and legal aid system to defend yourself? If you believe you’re innocent, turn yourself in, then fight your corner and make an application for legal aid.’
The Legal Aid Agency, which has awarded Shepherd £93,000, said he was entitled to the money under the regulations. Officials argued they had been following the rule book which apparently offers no guidance on whether fugitives should receive legal aid.
Additional reporting: Izzy Ferris, Richard Marsden, Larisa Brown, Neil Sears, David Wilkes, Tom Witherow, Ian Drury, Jake Hurfurt and Dora Allday
JUSTICE SECRETARY DAVID GAUKE ‘Has asked officials to look into public’s concerns’ SOLICITOR GENERAL ROBERT BUCKLAND ‘This matter deserves careful consideration’ HOME SECRETARY SAJID JAVID ‘I will do all I can to help Charlotte’s parents’