Lyell affirms his faith in SFO

The Maxwell trial: Civil action for tens of millions is back in play as brothers await a decision on outstanding indictments
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Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, yesterday reaffirmed his faith in the Serious Fraud Office and the handling of the Maxwell trial after Tony Banks, Labour MP for Newham NE, told the Commons his own gut feeling was that the brothers "are about as innocent as OJ Simpson".

The case, which cost pounds 25m and resulted in Ian and Kevin Maxwell and Larry Trachtenberg, a financial adviser, being found not guilty of defrauding pension funds, was investigated with great skill, said Sir Nicholas.

"The case was handled by the court in an exemplary fashion. The jury considered the matter with care and reached their decision. That is British justice."

Sir Nicholas said that the way to proceed in future cases was under review. "Trial by jury is a very important part of our liberties from which the House and country would never move lightly. But it does not mean that it is necessarily the only way.

"We will look calmly and carefully, when this case is fully over, ... as to whether there is a way these cases could be tried better than by jury."

But John Morris QC, the shadow attorney-general, and his Liberal Democrat counterpart, Alex Carlile QC, both defended jury trials in fraud cases. "I know so far of no better way of assessing dishonesty," Mr Morris said.

Lawyers who have represented clients in some of the big fraud trials were anxious yesterday to defend the record of the SFO and its director, George Staple, which has been widely criticised in the City and Parliament since the jury's decision on the Maxwell brothers. Mr Staple is to stand down at the end of his five-year contract next year.

But one senior solicitor pointed out that there was no way to monitor the internal workings of the SFO or the agency's performance in the way that the equivalent body is audited in Germany. "The public debate remains totally uninformed," he said.

Expert lawyers defended both the SFO's competence and the continuing need for a body that the Roskill Committee report in 1986 said should be a "single unified organisation responsible for all the functions of detection, investigation and prosecution of serious fraud". The SFO was set up in 1988.

Jonathan Goldberg QC, who represented the financier Roger Levitt who escaped from a multi-million pound fraud case with community service after a plea bargain, said: "Ninety-nine per cent of its cases are done very effectively. You need to have a Serious Fraud Office carrying out that function, even if you call it by another name." In the Levitt case, the plea bargain was not the fault of the SFO, he said. Other lawyers pointed out that the result of the Blue Arrow case, where all convictions were overturned on appeal, was a result of failures in case management and interruptions to the trial.

John Clitheroe, a senior partner in the solicitors Kingsley Napley, who represented Ian Maxwell, said: "It is not easy being opposed by the SFO. They are a hard opponent, and experienced. I don't accept the view that they are incompetent outfit who messed up."

Lord Roskill himself stands up for the body he brought into being: "I think the SFO has come in for a great deal of unfair criticism. You can't judge the success of a body by the outcome of cases and you can't judge a judge by the number of times his decisions are reversed in the Court of Appeal."