Leading Article: Two unsuitable cases for service

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Roger Levitt must have seen the Serious Fraud Office coming. A clever man, whatever his other characteristics, he certainly knew how to handle the Government's lawyers. The fact that he succeeded leaves Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, with a lot of explaining to do.

A dealer to the end, Mr Levitt - who wore a heavy coat, a big moustache and a large smile every time he left the court - bargained the hapless SFO into settling for a minor charge, one for which a non-custodial sentence was almost certain. In the end, Mr Levitt did 180 hours of community service; about an hour for each pounds 188,888 lost. That explains the smile.

The idea for a deal began with a conversation between junior barristers in a ladies' lavatory at court ("we were just powdering our wigs, m'lud"). It then passed through the hands of the senior counsel, before landing in the lap of George Staple, the SFO's director. Perhaps he was in a particularly good mood - or perhaps the SFO just couldn't bear the thought of another long trial and another expensive failure. Whatever the explanation, he was involved in a deal that he should have rejected.

However, what is even more disturbing about the Levitt case is the role the Attorney General played in then covering the SFO's tracks. After the sentence was handed down in November 1993, Sir Nicholas Lyell told MPs that "the Serious Fraud Office was not aware that the judge would impose a non-custodial sentence when it informed the defence that the proposed plea of guilty was acceptable". Yet the final deal was only completed after Mr Staple visited the court to discuss the plea bargain with the SFO's counsel. The judge, Mr Justice Laws, in a meeting with counsel then confirmed that the plea - guilty to the charge that Mr Levitt had lied to Fimbra, the city regulator - would not attract an immediate prison term. It is impossible to believe that the SFO did not realise that Mr Levitt was thus likely to escape prison.

The public has a right to expect the Attorney General to do more than act as the Government's main legal officer and advocate. He should also be seen to uphold the legal system's integrity. In this case, Sir Nicholas - who has had a far from brilliant career in the job - has manifestly failed to do that. Instead of offering a dispassionate judgement on the SFO's actions, he may have slipped into laundering their dirty linen.

At the weekend his office insisted that Sir Nicholas had nothing to add to the unfortunate statements he made in December 1993, which so misrepresented what happened in the Levitt case. He still has time to reconsider. Perhaps the SFO did not give him the full facts. But if that were the case it would hardly inspire confidence in Sir Nicholas's management of the Government's legal service. If he has no good answer to these charges then perhaps his community service should be brought to a halt.