A judge has criticized the decision by the Attorney General’s office to defund a man convicted of a $105 million tax fraud, saying it could cost the community tens of thousands and is a waste of “scarce public resources.”
Attorney General Mark Dreyfus revealed last week that the Commonwealth would no longer provide legal assistance to Adam Cranston.
The NSW Supreme Court was told on Tuesday that there would be further delays in Cranston’s sentencing as authorities were still deciding who would pay more than $40,000 in legal fees.
Cranston, the son of former Australian Revenue Office deputy commissioner Michael Cranston, has been found guilty of orchestrating a scam that defrauded the country of $105 million in tax. Michael Cranston is not charged with any crime.
During the trial, the court was told that Adam Cranston’s company, Plutus Payroll, had embezzled $105 million in taxes over three years.
His sister Lauren Cranston, lawyer Dev Menon, Patrick Willmott and Jason Onley were also found guilty of their involvement in one of the biggest tax scams in Australian history.
The funds were diverted to second-tier companies so that the five conspirators could spend them on luxury properties, cars, boats, and jewelry.
Cranston had been receiving Commonwealth funding for two years after he was denied legal assistance from NSW Legal Aid before his trial.
He was awarded federal funds in 2021 after his assets and finances were frozen and he was unable to pay for his legal defense.
But last week the court was told the funds had been withdrawn prior to Cranston’s sentencing.
Justice Anthony Payne told the NSW High Court on Tuesday that he had received correspondence from Legal Aid NSW, saying it had received a new application from Cranston and would make a decision in June.
A lawyer representing the Attorney General’s office, Robert Ranken, delivered a letter to the court confirming that the position had not changed.
“The Attorney General’s decision pertains to his financial assistance decision under a special circumstances scheme…that position remains,” Ranken told the court.
The letter outlines the funds Cranston has already received and what he still needs, which includes funds for legal fees, psychiatric reports, and a lead attorney and a sentencing hearing attorney.
“So this whole debate is about whether the Commonwealth or the state should pay around $40,000?” Judge Payne said.
Judge Payne said the cost to the community would be “exponentially higher” as new lawyers would have to familiarize themselves with the nine-month trial.
“The Commonwealth provided legal assistance for literal weeks in preparation for trial and during deliberations, the same lawyer may have only had a few days of preparation with a few days of hearings,” he told the court.
“A waste of scarce public resources.”
The court was told an additional $11,500 was needed for other legal fees and $37,000 for attorneys.
If Cranston is unable to obtain funds, Judge Payne said he would consider the next steps “unpleasant as they are”.
The judge previously described the sudden decision as a “remarkable change of position” and on Tuesday told the court that he “has no choice.”
“Mr. Cranston needs funds to make it fair,” Judge Payne told the court.
“This is a question of whether for, I think, 173 days, the Commonwealth continues to fund what might now be two or three days of preparation and a half day of hearing or transfers that to the state with a delay,” he said.
Judge Payne said he was concerned about the position of the community as there was great public interest in the case.
“This is one of the most serious federal tax crimes ever successfully prosecuted in this country,” he said.
“Hence my surprise and disappointment that there is now this delay.”
Judge Payne told the court that they were all under the agreement that Mr Cranston needed to be represented, but it was a matter of who paid for “a couple of days”.
The court was told that Cranston should be sentenced as soon as possible.
“I have to say…it really is quite undesirable, isn’t it?” Judge Payne said.
He said it was his duty as a trial judge to make sure there was a fair sentencing hearing, which means Cranston must be legally represented.
The court was told that it would be fundamentally unfair to proceed with Cranston without representation.
He told the court that the delays caused by the Prosecutor’s Office affected the community, being this tax offense “corrosive” for society.
Judge Payne said that these offenses were “difficult to detect and difficult to successfully prosecute”.
The matter was deferred until June.