End jury trials for fraud, says SFO chief

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The Independent Online
George Staple, director of the Serious Fraud Office, yesterday called for an end to the use of juries in the most complex fraud trials.

In a speech which is bound to be interpreted as the SFO's rebuttal of criticism over its handling of the Maxwell case, he said the current system was no longer suitable. However, he saw a role for juries in more straightforward fraud trials.

Mr Staple's comments, which revive proposals examined and dismissed by the Government in the late 1980s, came less than a week after a High Court judge halted the second Maxwell trial.

Mr Staple, who does not intend to renew his contract when it runs out in April, said: "I've always been a very great supporter of juries." But, he added: "If it is unreasonably burdensome for a single jury of 12 ordinary people to be asked to try the whole case, the question arises of what sort of alternative tribunal would be suitable."

He identified as one of the SFO's most serious problems the pressure to split charges into smaller blocks so that they are more manageable for the jury. The SFO has been encouraged to do this by the appeal court, notably with Blue Arrow in 1992

This means that for all the counts on indictment sheet to be heard more than one trial is required and the jury will never hear the full evidence against the defendants.

"So the position now is that in most complex fraud cases the indictment ... will be split up to produce a series of manageable trials, but it is very unlikely that a second trial will ever take place," Mr Staple said.

"This means that the full criminality is unlikely ever to come to court, nor will all the defendants. The system is therefore emasculated," he said.

The SFO does not believe that juries are incapable of understanding the issues of a case and also rejected criticism from Mr Justice Buckley last week that the SFO wanted to bring the second trial because it could not accept the decision of the first jury to clear the Maxwell brothers.

"The question is whether it is reasonable to ask an ordinary jury to sit for as long as it inevitably takes in the most complex cases to hear the entire case and, at the end of the process, deliver a verdict," Mr Staple said.