Sam Stein QC successfully defends and secures rare acquittal in an alleged ‘Land Banking’ fraud
THREE people have been cleared of conning clients into investing in Newbury’s “fields of gold”.
Afterwards one of the supposed victims, who bought a plot of land in Newbury, complained that his investment had been tainted by the case.
But West Berkshire Council has defended its part in bringing the prosecution.
During the 48-day Southwark Crown Court trial in Central London, it was alleged investors were conned into putting £20m into a land banking scheme.
Clients were sold land on sites in Newbury and in Lutterworth, Leicestershire, Huby in North Yorkshire and a site near Stansted, Essex.
In the dock were former Asset Land Investment directors Stuart Cohen, aged 67, of West Lane, West Hampstead, North West London; David Banner-Eve, aged 55, of Rambles Lane, Harlow, Essex; and 54-year-old Susan Siggins of Whighten Mews, Isleworth, Middlesex.
The defendants denied they set out to rip off customers, blaming the wild claims about potential profits on unscrupulous brokers out to boost their commission.
Mr Cohen said a consortium of Asset Lands Investments’ clients were pressing ahead with planning applications on sites in Newbury and elsewhere, adding: “It’s happening, it’s happening now, it’s going ahead as we speak.”
He said profit estimates given to clients of 200 to 300 per cent were “conservative” and that he was “very, very confident” of getting planning permission on the land.
All were cleared of conspiracy to defraud.
Afterwards Newbury resident Andrew McLean, whose friend invested in the scheme, queried the wisdom of bringing the case.
He said: “The legal costs must be astronomical at a time of severe cuts.”
Council spokesman Martin Dunscombe said the costs of bringing the prosecution would come from a central Government fund.
Mr Dunscombe went on: “The outcome of this case will have no bearing on whether or not the land would or would not receive planning permission.
“This is dealt with by an entirely separate process and each application is treated on its merits.”
Trading standards portfolio holder Marcus Franks (Con, Speen) said: “While the council must respect the decision reached by the jury in this case, I am nevertheless disappointed by the outcome of the trial.
"Jeffrey Lewis instructed the excellent specialist fraud counsel Sam Stein QC - leading our very own Jeremy Ornstin, Elena Abraham was the solicitor in support - who successfully defended a client against a £16m Conspiracy to defraud prosecution brought by West Berkshire District Council's Trading Standards department. Working with the FCA, the prosecution followed on from a segment in the BBC One's ‘Rip Off Britain’ series and a television expose produced by SKY News accusing the defendants' companies of being involved in a landbanking scam.
It was alleged that the three defendants were the principals of three separate companies which set about dividing plots of land for sale as investments to members of the public. They intended the land to be rezoned and sold on to large developers, after which the investors would make considerable profit. This is known as a Land bank investment scheme, which is also a UCIS ( Unregulated Collective Investment Scheme).
It was robustly argued on behalf of our client that the business model was far from a fraud, which was supported by advice from leading professionals in planning and development as well as specialist lawyers. The defendants based their model on the Kate Barker Review 2004, which was commissioned by the government and which indicated that more land would need to be rezoned and developed in order to keep up with the shortage of housing supply in the UK. Throughout the months leading up to the trial and during the course of the trial itself, there were almost daily headlines about the shortage of housing supply and the changing policy on planning being led by the government.
This case involved in excess of 350,000 items of evidence contained on servers and computers, and the Lewis Nedas team was able to use specialist software to identify further evidence of which the prosecution had not enjoyed similar access. This exercise proved crucial to setting out the defences of all three defendants and supporting the same with hard evidence. The Lewis Nedas team led the way on behalf of all three defendants in successfully challenging numerous assertions made by the prosecution, including demonstrating that refunds to investors were in excess of £1.6m compared to the initial figure put forward by the prosecution, which came to half of the correct amount.
Following an 11 week trial at Southwark Crown Court, the jury returned a unanimous verdict of not guilty in respect of all three defendants.
Our client, an experienced businessman, was delighted.