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Fraud fines urged to avert complex trials

Defendants in some complex fraud cases should face disciplinary sanctions or fines rather than criminal prosecutions, the Bar Council said yesterday as it published a package of measures aimed at reducing the length of such trials.

The report, which was produced after widespread criticism of the way recent fraud cases - such as Blue Arrow and the second Guinness hearing - have been handled, recommended moves to make trials more readily understandable to jurors.

However, it dismissed calls for juries to be replaced by a tribunal. Despite the complexity of serious fraud trials, the report says: 'Experience has shown that juries have generally returned verdicts which are both sensible and just, and that they are particularly good at distinguishing between conduct which is criminally dishonest and that which is merely irregular or foolish.'

Juries, according to the report, remain 'an important constitutional safeguard', ensuring that trials are not 'wholly determined by the executive and/or the judiciary'.

Yet steps are needed to make serious fraud trials shorter, cheaper and more manageable, according to Jeremy Roberts QC, who chaired the working party responsible for the report. Yesterday, he said that where a fraud offence was unlikely to warrant a prison sentence, prosecuting authorities should be given the option of fining defendants instead of bringing criminal charges.

In addition, charges could be avoided in some cases where self- regulatory bodies impose disciplinary measures.

These recommendations are certain to lead to accusations that the rich beneficiaries of fraud would escape prosecution while poor defendants in other cases would be charged. But Mr Roberts said: 'It might well be the most effective way, in many cases, of obtaining recompense for the victims of potential (fraud)'.

The working group also called for the introduction of plea-bargaining, whereby defendants would be told by the judge what sentence they could expect if they admitted their guilt.

Only judges able to deal with complex issues thrown up by fraud should be selected to oversee the cases, Mr Roberts said. His colleague, Dorian Lovell-Pank, said: 'You have got to have the right judge who can deal with difficult defendants and sometimes turbulent counsel.'

However, both men rejected the idea of specialist fraud judges, with Mr Roberts saying: 'An unmixed diet of fraud would be enough to finish anyone off.'