The Court of Appeal was taken back to a different era when the four defendants in the Guinness trial launched a fresh attempt to clear their names.
Eleven years after the original trial of Ernest Saunders, Sir Jack Lyons, Anthony Parnes and Gerald Ronson, their lawyer Michael Beloff QC argued that the convictions were unsafe because his clients were denied a fair trial.
Their convictions for illegally rigging the stock market before Guinness's £2.6bn takeover of Distillers in 1986 sent shock waves through the City and marked a watershed in attitudes. Still a high point for the Serious Fraud Office, which brought the prosecution, the case laid bare the culture among financiers for aggressive dealing and spectacular money-making. The trial was synonymous with Thatcherism – not least because one defendant, Mr Lyons, was close to the former prime minister.
Mr Beloff said the four men would be raising several issues in the appeal. These would include the way in which they had been robbed of their right to silence because evidence they were compelled to give to Department of Trade and Industry inspectors was used against them at the trial.
A House of Lords ruling last week that the Human Rights Act could not be applied retrospectively to appeals appeared to have dealt a blow to their appeal chances but, said Mr Beloff, the Lords' decision "does not kill stone dead each and every argument". The appeal judges could still find on grounds of general fairness that the defendants had the right not to be forced to incriminate themselves.
The court will also hear new evidence that police were aware that the foreman of the jury was possibly open to accepting a bribe in return for a "not guilty" verdict. Instead of telling the defence and judge so the trial could be halted and a retrial ordered, the police chose to keep the "jury nobbling" claim secret.
The police heard of the plot to rig the trial from an informant who received a tip from a criminal friend who drank with the foreman. The respondents will contend that the plan never became reality and, besides, the foreman strenuously denies ever making such a suggestion.
During the next three weeks, the judges will hear evidence from the police officers, the foreman and others who were involved in the trial.
Mr Beloff will also maintain that the trial did not pay enough attention to acceptable City behaviour at the time. He will say that information showing that their activities were not unique was kept from the jury.
Much hinges on the appeal, not just the vindication of the four. If successful, they will strike a blow at the SFO and again raise questions about the conduct of long, complex fraud cases – their trial lasted six months. It will also lead to claims of compensation running into many millions of pounds. Mr Ronson and Mr Lyons will demand the return of fines of £5m and £3m. All four ran up substantial bills for costs. Then there is the damage caused to their reputations and careers by the convictions. Mr Lyons suffered the humiliation of being stripped of his knighthood.
In the years since the original trial, the four have enjoyed mixed success. Mr Saunders, who was jailed for five years but had his sentence halved after the Court of Appeal accepted expert advice he was suffering from early senile dementia, works as a company consultant and has assisted, among others, Carphone Warehouse. Mr Ronson is virtually rehabilitated in the City and property community he worked in before conviction, embarking on huge construction projects.
Mr Lyons, 84, lived in Florida for a time and is now in poor health. Mr Parnes, whose nickname was "the Animal" on account of his combative share-trading style, has never resumed his former career but amassed considerable wealth from his time in the City.
The accused then and now
Five years in jail for false accounting, theft and conspiracy. Sentence halved due to pre-senile dementia. Now a company consultant
Sir Jack Lyons
Fined £3m and stripped of his knighthood. The financier, 84, has since had three heart attacks. Undergoing cancer therapy
Given two-and-a-half years for false accounting and theft. Term reduced to 21 months on appeal. No longer active in the City
Given 12 months in jail and a £5m fine for his part in the illegal share support operation. Has resumed his business careerReuse content