Shorter fraud trials urged

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The Independent Online
THE JUDGE in the five-week trial of Thomas Ward, who was acquitted on Monday of stealing pounds 5.2m from Guinness, yesterday entered the debate on fraud trials with his own suggestions for making them shorter and cheaper.

Mr Justice Turner called for a change in the 1987 Criminal Justice Act after awarding Mr Ward his defence costs, estimated to be between pounds 500,000 and pounds 2m. He had been legally aided since November 1991.

The three previous Guinness trials, two of which ended without convictions, are said to have cost the taxpayer more than pounds 20m.

The judge said shorter and simpler fraud trials would save the 'huge expenditure of public money'. He wondered why Mr Ward's trial had lasted so long, but added: 'Anything I say, I would have said regardless of the result of this present case.'

During the trial Mr Ward, 53, an American lawyer and a Guinness director between 1985 and 1987, denied prosecution allegations that he plotted with Ernest Saunders to steal the money.

The jury agreed that it was a legitimately earned success fee for his contribution to Guinness's pounds 2.7bn bid for Distillers in 1986.

Mr Justice Turner's recommendations included a call for greater disclosure by defence counsels - a measure that the Serious Fraud Office favours - and the introduction, with appropriate sanctions, of a form of the 'plea-bargaining' common in civil litigation.

While the prosecution had to lay bare its knowledge and evidence in a trial, he said, the defence could 'sit by and set up an ambush at any stage'. The danger then was that proper issues of fact might lie buried until quite late in the trial, and time might be wasted on evidence that later proved common ground.

He said the perception that juries would get only an impression of what was common ground by hearing from live witnesses was 'fallacious' and insulting to most juries, including the one that tried Mr Ward.

The judge also spoke of proposals for a regulatory body or tribunal with statutory powers to enforce codes of conduct for those in finance and commerce.

In his view, such a regulatory framework could exist alongside current law, and the judge or prosecuting authorities could decide within which to deal with any matter. The tribunal chairman need not be full-time. 'It should be within the powers of a judge to perform that function,' he observed.

Law under fire, page 21