Trial of Guinness defendants breached their human rights, says European court

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The Independent Online

The trial of three businessmen found guilty of colluding in an illegal share-fixing operation during the Guinness takeover of Distillers was a breach of their human rights.

The trial of three businessmen found guilty of colluding in an illegal share-fixing operation during the Guinness takeover of Distillers was a breach of their human rights.

The European Court of Human Rights ruling yesterday immediately prompted lawyers acting for Gerald Ronson, Jack Lyons and Anthony Parnes to consider moves to have the convictions set aside.

Judges sitting in Strasbourg found that the prosecution was wrong to use self-incriminating statements made by the three men during their Crown Court trial in 1990. The European court came to a similar conclusion in 1996 in the case of Ernest Saunders, the former Guinness chairman.

Lawyers for the three men said that they were now exploring all their options, including direct applications to the Court of Appeal and referrals to the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

It is understood the men will use the judgment to attempt to have the convictions quashed under the new Human Rights Act, which on 2 October brings into direct force the European Convention on Human Rights, after the Strasbourg judges said that the prosecution had "sought to prove the case against them by using the transcripts of the statements they made to the inspectors".

The judges rejected claims by the three men that there had been "improper collusion" between police and the DTI, and that the trial had been unfair in any other way. No damages were awarded but the judges gave the three men two months to submit claims for costs.

The Guinness affair dates back to November 1986, when the secretary of state for trade and industry ordered an investigation into Guinness'sacquisition of the Distillers company after allegations of an illegal share support operation to guarantee the bid's success.

The three men, who were interviewed separately by DTI inspectors on various occasions, were required by law to answer the questions put to them. If they refused, they faced the threat of hefty fines or up to two years in prison for contempt of court.

The transcripts were passed to the Crown Prosecution Service and then to the police when the Director of Public Prosecutions requested a criminal investigation.

Mr Saunders was charged in May 1987 with false accounting, theft and the destruction of documents.

Charges against the three businessmen came in October 1987: Mr Lyons, a management consultant to Guinness, was charged with nine offences relating to invoices submitted for advice given during the Guinness bid.

Mr Ronson, the chairman of Heron International, which took part in the share-buying operation, was charged with eight offences relating to invoices that two Heron subsidiary companies submitted for losses incurred on the sale of Guinness shares and for the "success fee" paid after the successful outcome of the Guinness bid. Mr Parnes, a trader who had been arrested in America, was charged on his return to Britain with six offences relating to two invoices and the success fees he had charged to Guinness.

All three maintained that the share operations were common practice and could not be classified as a crime, and they pleaded not guilty to all charges at the Crown Court trial.

The trial ended with guilty verdicts against all four. Mr Ronson was sentenced to one year in jail and fined £5m; Mr Parnes was sentenced to two and half years and Mr Saunders to five years. Mr Lyons was fined £3m but deemed to be too frail to be incarcerated. He was stripped off his knighthood.