New question over future of the Serious Fraud Office

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The Independent Online
The Maxwell ruling could have serious and far-reaching implications for the future of the Serious Fraud Office and the conduct of fraud trials. It might also hasten the end of jury trials in complex cases and usher in a new system of judges sitting with expert assessors.

The explosion of complex fraud trials that began in the mid-Eighties, prompting the creation of the Serious Fraud Office in 1988, brought with it a stream of complaints that exhausted jurors found the proceedings too lengthy and too complicated to follow.

The paring down of the number of charges, and split indictments necessitating two or more trials - decisions that would be reached with the advice of outside counsel or on the instructions of the judge - was the way of tackling the problem.

If subsequent trials are to be viewed as an abuse of process, that raises serious questions about how large-scale alleged frauds can be properly tried under the present jury trial system.

Those who oppose the retention of juries in fraud cases are bound to argue that a system involving specialist judges and assessors would be able to handle a large case in one go.

After the first trial in January, Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, announced that the Government was looking at the use of juries in fraud cases - a move that Keith Oliver, Kevin Maxwell's solicitor, claimed yesterday implicitly called the verdict into question.

A Lord Chancellor's Department spokesman said: "The Government keeps the handling of long and complex fraud trials under close review in the light of changing circumstances. The review of the role of the jury is one of the important issues which arises in this context."

George Staple, the SFO's director, said in a statement yesterday that the outstanding charges in the Maxwell affair related to "completely separate" transactions to those examined at the first trial involving two charges. He also took the view that the evidence relating to the remaining counts was not in any way weakened by the acquittals at the end of the first trial.

In the Maxwell case there were 10 counts in total of alleged fraud against pension funds, banks and public companies which the prosecution wanted to be tried. But Mr Justice Phillips, the judge at the first trial who has since been promoted to the Court of Appeal, felt that more than two charges would overwhelm the jury.

Mr Staple said that public confidence in the administration of justice "required that the full extent of the alleged fraud be brought before the court for adjudication."

"This case vividly illustrates the difficulties of large fraud cases," he said. "The case was split to make it manageable for a jury but very serious charges will not now be heard."

The SFO has twice before launched a second prosecution against an acquitted defendant, failing in one and succeeding in the other.

There was concern at the SFO's headquarters. Mr Justice Buckley's ruling sent "an almost impossible message about large investigations," a source said.Some at the SFO admit that stopping the second trial will prevent it from suffering a further high-profile humiliation.