Trial finished in hospital by injured judge

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The Independent Online
A JUDGE made legal history yesterday when she concluded a major fraud trial from the confines of her hospital bed after breaking her leg.

Even in today's age of technological wizardry, only a few trials involve live video link-ups with the court. None had ever involved beaming into court images of a bespectacled judge sitting on the edge of a bed.

But Judge Valerie Pearlman's use of the latest Internet technology saved taxpayers more than pounds 2.5m by avoiding the need for a re-trial.

Judge Pearlman, 62, resorted to the Internet after she fractured her leg last March in a fall. With a trial already underway at London's Southwark Crown Court, she had an operation to have a metal plate inserted to support the damaged bone. Six weeks later, the trial resumed with Judge Pearlman using walking sticks to get around the courtroom. All went well for three weeks until the plate snapped and it was revealed that the fracture had not healed. With her summing up of the case 75 per cent completed, the judge, who had been taken to St Bartholomew's Hospital, was determined not to have to order a retrial.

"I wondered if there was any way out of this hole and what could be done to save the trial," she said. "Then I came up with the idea of continuing from Bart's great hall."

And so it was. With just an hour's notice the jury was taken to St Bartholomew's and settled into the makeshift courtroom in the 30ft-high, oak-panelled splendour of the great hall. Then, from the questionable comfort of an NHS wheelchair, the judge spent the next two days summing up. "Unfortunately, yesterday I stepped into the family car ... but when it came to getting out, I could not step on my bad leg," she explained to the jurors.

Afterwards, the jury returned to Southwark to spend some 55 hours considering their verdict in the case, which lasted six months.

Meanwhile, Judge Pearlman was transferred to a hospital near Worthing, West Sussex, for surgery on her leg.

As she recovered, she used a specially installed pounds 2,500 two-way Internet video link to follow the trial's progress, and answer the jury's questions.

Almost a dozen times the link flickered to life to reveal the judge, in a pink and purple patterned dress, sitting on the end of a slightly rumpled bed.

Judge Pearlman's commitment to law and order was revealed yesterday at the conclusion of the trial when restrictions banning the reporting of the unusual arrangements were lifted.

Three people - Gian Lombardi, 50, his wife, Veronica, 28, from west London and Gianfranco Udovicich, 50, from central London, were found guilty of conspiracy to defraud between January 1994 and September 1996. A fourth defendant was acquitted.

The court had been told that the gang used plush offices and a facade of respectability to lure people into non-existent investment schemes. Judge Pearlman will deliver the sentences when she has recovered sufficiently to be brought to court in a wheelchair.

Yesterday, Judge George Bathurst-Norman, senior judge at Southwark, told the jury: "It may be of interest to you to know that you are least a footnote in history," adding that his colleague had shown judges did not live in the Dark Ages.