Leading Article: Scandal and sleaze

Click to follow
IN NOVEMBER 1991, Ivan Fergus - a south London schoolboy described by his headteacher as 'an exemplary pupil' - was found guilty of assault with intent to rob and given 15 months' youth custody. The only evidence against him was from the victim of the attack, a short-sighted bank clerk. The victim first told police that his assailant was about 5ft 11ins tall, aged 16 to 18, light-skinned with stubble on his chin. He then identified Ivan, a 5ft 7in, 13-year-old Afro-Caribbean who had not started shaving. Last week, the Appeal Court, going beyond the usual bromides of 'unsafe and unsatisfactory', declared that he was 'wholly innocent'.

Ivan was failed by almost everybody involved. The solicitor in charge of his case went abroad before the trial, leaving no instructions. His barrister failed, among other things, to call four of Ivan's friends as witnesses in support of his alibi - a performance that, according to the Appeal Court, 'fell markedly short of the standard to be expected of a member of the Bar'. The police failed to take statements from the friends. The judge failed to put the case properly to the jury. The only person who did not fail Ivan was his mother. She gave up her teacher training course to fight the case. Only because of her efforts - and the support of her local MP, Harriet Harman - was Ivan released last July and eventually cleared.

The case may be an extreme example of legal incompetence, but the essentials are not unusual. The Birmingham Six, the Maguire Seven, the Guildford Four, the Cardiff Three - the list of wrongful convictions is long and shameful. In a book published last month, Michael Mansfield QC, who was involved in many of the cases, wrote: 'It was not the criminal justice system which, in the end, recognised its dreadful mistakes and moved resolutely and contritely to correct them. It was not the police, it was certainly not the politicians, it was not the State and it was not the so-called responsible members of society who eventually demanded justice. It was the victims themselves, their families, friends and supporters who never gave up fighting.'

Now consider what we should perhaps call the Northern Cyprus One. Unlike Ivan, Asil Nadir had access not only to the best legal advice, including one of the country's top barristers, but to expensive public relations advisers; he had the means to flee the country and escape trial; above all, he is not the victim of a miscarriage of justice for the simple reason that he has not been convicted. But he is a contributor to Tory party funds and a friend of the rich and powerful, and so even a potential miscarriage of justice causes letters, phone calls, meetings and a 97-page dossier in the Attorney General's office. The alleged 'dirty tricks' of the Serious Fraud Office, outlined in Michael Mates's resignation speech on Tuesday, dominated Parliamentary debate, newspaper front pages, television bulletins. The dirty tricks played on Ivan by the entire legal system went almost wholly unreported (except by this newspaper) before last week's acquittal, and was bounced off the front pages by Mr Nadir even then.

If the SFO is misusing its wide powers, the matter should be investigated. But Mr Mates and other MPs should be aware that the law enforcement agencies are riddled with such behaviour. In one recent survey of Crown courts, covering just two weeks, judges found 15 serious breaches of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, four of them meriting disciplinary proceedings.

The political establishment's underlying assumption is that fraud is not like other crime, that rich tycoons should be treated with more respect than other suspected villains. Yet there is no moral distinction between the crime of which Ivan Fergus was wrongly accused and that with which Asil Nadir is charged. Nobody accuses Mr Nadir of using violence; he would not need to. But the victims of corporate fraud, as Robert Maxwell so vividly illustrated, are ordinary people. Its extent is huge ( pounds 671m last year alone) and growing. The only letters worth writing, the only speeches worth making should be addressed to Mr Nadir, demanding that he return from northern Cyprus. Then, to be sure, his friends should demand that he get justice. But until they show equal anxiety about the sort of injustices done to Ivan Fergus they will be tainted with hyprocrisy and double standards.