Maxwell trial looks like a hard day at the office

Justice/ techno-howls in court

THE Old Bailey's Court 22, where the marathon Maxwell fraud trial began last week, is unlike the criminal courtroom of most people's imaginations. Court 22 is a long bright room with a low ceiling. It's in an annexe, on the second floor of a modern building, above a leather-goods shop called Preston. One would pass it by - if it were not for the policemen and policewomen, and the outside broadcast trucks, and a 50-metre line of photographers and film cameramen shouting "Kevin! Kevin!" at Ian Maxwell.

Ian Maxwell, in fact, looks something like George, the editor in Drop the Dead Donkey. He is the stockier of the two brothers. Like Kevin, he arrived at court each day on foot, in a dark suit and simple tie. He held the hand of his American-born wife, Laura, a former model, and walked forward fast while photographers walked backwards fast in front of them. In the lift, he spoke quiet French (his mother's first language) with his wife. And then he joined the many wigs and many journalists, and Kevin - the slimmer, straighter-backed, more hands-on-hips brother - in Court 22.

For all the effort taken to turn this room into a plausible place of law - not much effort, in truth - it looks like an ordinary modern workplace: strip lighting, neutral carpet, and grey cardboard "Sto Away" filing boxes. Court 22 is not woodlined, far from Rumpolean.(And there is the odd detail of many suntans: before the start of a trial expected to last at least six months there has been an understandable outbreak of panic holidaying).

One would not be surprised to see soft toys on top of the many computer terminals here, or to find - in place of the golden heraldry that hangs rather wobblingly behind the head of the judge, Mr Justice Phillips - a poster reading "You Don't Have To Be Mad To Work Here But It Helps". It is as if courtrooms are now going to be decorated according to the scene of the alleged crime: pub, front room, M4. This would explain why Ian and Kevin Maxwell are being tried in an office. They and their former colleagues, Larry Trachtenberg and Robert Bunn, are accused of office crimes. (One must think of Sir Nicholas Phillips as Nick from Personnel.)

On Day 1, the court's modern office technology failed spectacularly. Tap, tap, tap, went the judge, banging a pencil against a silent microphone. Tap, tap, went Alan Suckling QC, for the Serious Fraud Office. A clerk of the court blew into a microphone. Mr Suckling looked to the press seats and asked a question that is always difficult to answer when heard very faintly: "Can you hear me?" He then said: "I am switched on."

The air-conditioning was not working. Temperatures rose. The judge was provided with a clip-on "throat" mike - which carried his voice with only the merest hint of feedback. But it then began to pick up interference from the stenographical service that was feeding a transcription of proceedings on to many screens. This added an odd squeak to the judge's words, while the press seats naturally hoped for more interesting interference - from Capital Radio, say, or a local minicab firm.

At last Mr Justice Phillips said: "I find it very disturbing and I'm sure other people do as well. So I will rise and hope we will be able to put it right." On the screen, the transcription service added to this remark: "? ? ? ?" and then "a a a a a a a eye a a a a". This mysterious techno-howl remained on the monitor for the rest of the day.

By Day 2, the office-as-court was functioning better: 15,000 documents had been scanned on to CD-ROM and - in place of the usual references to bundle this and bundle that - the prosecution began to point its arrow and click; and set about illuminating an alleged office crime by showing the jury office paperwork - much of it marked "Strictly Private and Confidential".

And so the trial began in earnest. Imagine a smart new literary genre, the financial thriller written entirely in the epistolary form (The Memo, perhaps), where crises in cashflow and credit have all the more drama for the camouflage of sober language and form: "Recognising the seriousness of the situation, Kevin mentioned that he was now forced to cancel his fishing trip to Norway . . ." "Robert Maxwell commenced by referring to his long relationship with NatWest, which had been based on mutual trust and our knowledge that he always kept his promises . . ." "It is important that banks are content that this information is full and robust . . ." "This meeting was called following the current excess of pounds 8.5m on MCC accounts . . ." ". . . the group is under considerable pressure . . ." "The sad death of Robert Maxwell . . ." "The company had a substantial net asset deficiency . . ."

The case continues.

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