We need a US-style crack-down on financial crime, writes Roger Trapp

Click to follow
The soul-searching and debate that have followed the decision not to go ahead with the second Maxwell trial are difficult to understand in the United States.

Moreover, while this is just the latest in a string of setbacks for the Serious Fraud Office, the US authorities have enjoyed great success in their attempts to have financial crime punished where it has been discovered.

As Lee Cooper, president of the American Bar Association, said last month, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the chief regulator of the US financial markets, has had a good success rate. But the environment is also in the organisation's favour. "Securities fraud is taken very seriously by government agencies and by the private bar," he added.

Convicted Wall Street stars, such as the junk bond kings Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky, have tended to be sentenced to prison sentences and to have to pay substantial fines.

Nobody in Britain questions the degree to which the authorities want to crack down on violations of the market. The discussion seems to centre on the means by which this is done. In particular, doubts have been raised about the role of juries in trials that are often - by necessity - lengthy and complex.

Though it has been characterised as attacking an institution for coming up with the "wrong" answer, many distinguished figures have suggested that the time is ripe for juries to give way to panels of well-trained judges or experts in this field.

But in the US, according to Mr Cooper, there is little need for discussion of the issue. Indeed, far from being confused by the events described to them, juries in the civil actions related to such episodes take a decidedly dim view of what has happened and award large monetary damages.

As one of a number of distinguished US lawyers who were in London for last week's ceremonies surrounding the opening of the legal year, Alabama- based Mr Cooper could have had a few words of encouragement for his British colleagues.

Based on his great experience of acting in securities fraud cases all over the south-eastern US, he added that juries tend to make "larger awards than in personal injury. Cheating somebody riles them" n