Fraud experts want plea bargains and specialist judges in shake-up

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The Independent Online
POLICEMEN, lawyers, accountants and other professionals who investigate fraud want a shake-up of fraud trials, including a firm timetable, a specialist panel of judges and full-scale plea bargaining, writes John Willcock.

A survey of 75 fraud experts who have worked alongside or against the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) gave a cautious thumbs up to its director, George Staple.

But they warned that in order to end the SFO's run of fiascos, culminating in the plea bargain by the financial adviser Roger Levitt for 180 hours' community service, sweeping changes in the trial system needed to be made.

The fraud experts, who were polled by Legal Business magazine, stopped short of calling for judge-only, no-jury trials. But 77 per cent wanted specialist judges for fraud trials.

The SFO has become notorious for launching lengthy trials with a low conviction rate. Of those surveyed, 76 per cent wanted a firm timetable for trials.

Surprisingly, in view of the Levitt affair, 75 per cent wanted full-scale plea bargaining.

A significant number of those surveyed admitted 'nod and wink' plea bargaining with judges already went on. They wanted to see a more open system of bargaining in open court, and also suggested the SFO should have powers of regulatory enforcement akin to those of the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

Nearly three-quarters wanted greater guidelines in sentencing from the Court of Appeal.

Those surveyed were divided on whether Mr Staple was doing a better job than his predecessor, Barbara Mills. Of the 51 per cent who noticed a change of approach under Mr Staple, 86 per cent said it was for the better.

The Government's proposal that the SFO should be turned into an executive agency able to put certain investigations out to tender was unpopular, 61 per cent of respondents giving it the thumbs down.