SFO wants to end trial by jury in complex financial cases

The Serious Fraud Office has failed in a number of high-profile prosecutions over the past 10 years. Now it seems to be blaming juries for those failures. Steve Boggan finds out why.
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The head of the Serious Fraud Office and her predecessor have called for an end to the right to trial by jury in complicated financial trials. Rosalind Wright (above right) and George Staple (left) believe the over-simplification of trials to accommodate jurors' lack of specialised knowledge is resulting in prosecutions failing.

The calls met immediate resistance last night from Liberty, formerly the National Council for Civil Liberties, which said it it would be "seriously concerned" about any moves to end the right to trial by jury in any type of case.

Instead of 12 ordinary men and women, Ms Wright and Mr Staple would like to see trials heard by some form of panel of experts headed by a judge. Speaking at a symposium on economic crime at Jesus College, Cambridge, Ms Wright, director of the SFO, described the jury system as one of the "pitfalls" facing prosecutors.

"The prosecutor strives to present a complex commercial fraud to a jury of lay people in a way that enables them to understand the intricacies of the commercial transactions and understand the documents, often the most convoluted and intricate sets of accounts," she said. "But this means having to prune a case to its bare essentials, losing, in the process, substantial elements of the total criminality alleged."

Once cases are split into a series of simple transactions "you run the risk of losing the total picture," she said. "You are also in danger of the `Pandora factor', the ruling by [Mr Justice] Buckley to stop the second [Kevin] Maxwell trial in its tracks as `unfair' on the accused ... If you don't split them, you have a huge unmanageable monster of a case."

In a separate interview with The Independent, Mr Staple, director of the SFO from April 1992 until April of this year, said only a few extremely complicated cases would be affected. "We are all aware of the civil liberties element of the argument but we are also anxious that the administration of justice should be allowed to flow smoothly," he said. "Fraud is becoming more complicated all the time. People are now talking about fraud in cyberspace over the Internet. Juries of ordinary people already have enormous difficulties understanding many of the technical terms."

Philip Leach, legal officer at Liberty, said the moves would be resisted. "We would have serious concerns about the removal of juries in these kinds of cases." He said juries were "a crucial element of our legal system".