Echo lifts lid on four-year trial as gagging order ends

Banged to rights: with four years of unused court copy, Gloucestershire Echo editor Anita Syvret (top inset) went to town covering the Robinson trials

Reports of Britain’s biggest and most expensive legal aid fraud case have finally been published in the Gloucestershire Echo – four years after a judge gagged all coverage of the case.

Editor Anita Syvret committed the paper to covering Tim Robinson’s six trials, despite a ruling that banned publicity until all of them had finished.

Most of the media were deterred by the length and complexity of the Cheltenham lawyer’s case, which involved 29 defendants.

But in all, Syvret committed 20 journalists to the job, all of whom have now left the paper.

She said: “I was the only constant. I knew when this started, it would go on and I knew I would still be here when it ended unless I got the sack.

So I couldn’t say, ‘Oh, it won’t be my problem. The next editor will have to deal with that one.’ I couldn’t live with myself if I screwed up on the biggest case that ever hit my career.

“I got the reporters to file copy every time they came back from court, as if it were to appear in the paper the next day. That’s the only way we could keep track of what was going on. I felt a bit old-fashioned but I am a bit of a stickler for thoroughness.

“It paid off. As each of the six trials ended, we put together a wrap-up piece and worked on a stack of backgrounders.

When the restrictions were finally lifted [this week] we had a 24-page supplement, plus 12 pages of breaking news, and loads more copy for a serialisation.”

She added: “It was exhausting. I collated it all because I was the only one who could keep a handle on 29 defendants, all of them lawyers and clerks. We had to send reporters from Cheltenham to Bristol, an hour each way by train — and sometimes it ended up as a wasted day.”

Syvret had a personal interest, as Robinson was the newspaper’s lawyer. Sentenced to a seven-year jail term, he is already out on parole after serving four years of his sentence without anyone knowing.

She said the money involved was estimated at more than £8m – Robinson got £3.3m – the police investigation took 10 years and the cost of the trial was £40m.

Syvret has argued strongly that the gagging order was a mistake, as the issue of Legal Aid is of enormous public interest, those involved were pillars of the community, and the money involved was public money.

By Jean Morgan

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