Law officers draw up plan for limiting lengthy trials

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EXTRA powers for judges to exclude evidence, advance fee-fixing and special training for lawyers and evidence summaries for juries have been put forward by the Lord Chancellor's Department as possible answers to the problem of lengthy criminal trials.

A consultation paper published yesterday follows concern about the length and cost of some trials, particularly fraud cases, such as the Guinness and Blue Arrow affairs. Costs to the country run into many millions of pounds. The department says a growing number could be shortened.

The paper suggests that the payment of lawyers - who it accuses of sometimes lengthening proceedings unnecessarily through 'unfamiliarity or inefficiency' - could be one way of restricting trials' lengths. It says the advance fixing of defence fees would exert 'considerable but not improper' pressure on lawyers.

In the pre-trial stage, the paper raises the question of whether judges for fraud cases should be selected on the basis of expertise in both financial matters and the management of long trials. Greater powers for judges to reduce indictments, wider disclosure of defence material and the automatic cross service of co-defendants' statements could help decide pre-trial issues and simplify the main trial, it says.

Judges in the United States have powers to rule out evidence if it is 'repetitive or unnecessary'. The paper seeks opinions on whether such powers should be granted in British courts. Limiting the length of trials or parts of trials, or the creation of full timetables, are also suggested as possible new measures.