Guinness judge scales mountain of evidence

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JAMES CUSICK

It could have been mistaken as a passing reference to the skeletal models working at Paris fashion week when the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, addressing counsel on the first day of the Guinness appeal this week, pronounced "Thin is beautiful".

However, the shape and content of files rather than figures was occupying Lord Taylor's thoughts as he and two Court of Appeal judges faced a month of new argument in the latest chapter of the continuing Guinness saga.

It is now five years since Ernest Saunders, the former chairman of Guinness, Gerald Ronson, the property tycoon, and the stockbroker Anthony Parnes all received jail sentences for operating a share-support scheme that boosted Guinness's share price in the crucial run-up to the company's successful pounds 2.7bn takeover of Distillers.

A fourth man, the consultant Sir Jack Lyons, was fined pounds 3m and stripped of his knighthood.

Claims of Star Chamber conspiracies, confessions extracted with legal rights being prejudiced, crucial evidence withheld by the prosecution, new documents becoming available, new details emerging on a crucial witness and claims that the guilty parties were simply doing what was "all the rage in the City" have been advanced by lawyers for the appellants.

Nearly 10 years have passed since the 1986 takeover battle. But in addition to longing for thin files, the Lord Chief Justice seemed hardly surprised that new material was still being presented to the judges. In his own self-confessed cri de coeur, Lord Taylor told the court that he expected "that if we all came back here in a few years, there would doubtless be even more new material".

On Monday, Anthony Scrivener QC is expected to conclude his summary of the arguments on behalf of Jack Lyons. In the four court days so far Jonathan Caplan QC, counsel for Mr Saunders, said that the "crux of his case" was that Department of Trade and Industry inspectors, called in to investigate the Distillers takeover, effectively became "evidence gatherers" for a prosecution team and that the police were excluded from inquiries because their powers of inquiry were less than those of the inspectors.

It was also alleged that Olivier Roux, the former finance director of Guinness and a key witness in the case against Saunders in the first 1990 Guinness trial, was himself being investigated by the DTI over suspected insider dealing.

Counsel for Anthony Parnes and Gerald Ronson, who have always admitted they participated in the share-price support deal but regarded the business as nothing unusual, had their argument rerun again this week. Share price indemnity schemes were "all the rage" at the time, the Court of Appeal has been told.

In spite of Mr Ronson's acknowledgement that he did become involved in supporting the Guinness share price - taking, he says, advice from Anthony Parnes - his counsel in the Court of Appeal, John Mathew QC, nevertheless claimed that the role of the DTI inspectors had involved "a misuse of process".

Mr Mathew also offered his own challenge to their lordships when he said: "No one on this side of the bar can think of a single example over the years of police inquiries being deliberately delayed in order for inspectors to obtain admissable evidence."

Next week, when Mr Scrivener completes his summary, the Crown will have its turn. In its argument, expected to last a further week, the court is likely to hear assertions that even if the jury had known of others involved in similar practices to those found guilty, it would have made no difference to their decision.

And whether it was the DTI inspectors or the police, the law was adhered to, the Crown is expected to argue.

Following the Crown's case, the four appellants' counsels will be given a further opportunity to reply. The court proceedings will then adjourn with the judges expected to deliver their written verdict in about two months.

A fortnight of summary, however, is not what the three Court of Appeal judges will have to work on.

On the legal benches of court four there are currently the 12 wigs of leading and junior counsel, advising solicitors and their specialist advisers.

In front of them are 130 thick files on which their verbal summaries are based. Their lordships will retire, according to one counsel, to do "some serious reading".

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