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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 March, 2005, 21:14 GMT
'Significant lessons need to be learnt'
By Jon Silverman
Legal affairs analyst

Canary Wharf Underground station
The men were accused of defrauding London Underground

The collapse of Jubilee Line fraud case has led to a reported 60m bill for court costs and an inquiry ordered by the attorney general, who says a similar situation must not arise again.

But as legal affairs analyst Jon Silverman reports, this call echoes the aftermath of previous costly cases.

In 1992, the Appeal Court described the marathon Blue Arrow fraud trial, which cost the taxpayer 40m, as a "costly disaster" which must never be repeated. But at least that case, the second-longest criminal trial in English history, came to a conclusion with jury verdicts.

The Jubilee Line trial did not even get that far and the inquiry announced by the attorney general will be expected to point up some significant lessons.

One perennial issue, which will be raised yet again, is the capacity of juries to cope with the complexity of such a case.

Ever since the Roskill Committee recommended in 1986 that, in fraud trials, the jury should be replaced by a judge, sitting with lay assessors, the argument has swung back and forth.

It is sometimes forgotten that the 2003 Criminal Justice Act provided for jury-less fraud trials. But because the issue is so divisive, this section has not been implemented.

Losing the overall picture

Where there is agreement is in the need to simplify the charges and paperwork in fraud trials and for the judge to apply rigorous case management to prevent a trial becoming unmanageable.

As a former director of the Serious Fraud Office, Rosalind Wright, has pointed out: "For each transaction or series of transactions - conspiracies - there are often different combinations of people and facts."

The decision to bring charges in February 2000 was approved by the attorney general himself

The question then is whether to split them into separate trials and risk losing the overall picture. Or to hold one trial, which may turn into a legal monster.

The collapse of the Jubilee Line trial will also focus attention on the quality of the investigation carried out by the British Transport Police.

For some years, there have been warnings that many police fraud inquiries have been underfunded and understaffed.

Whether this was a factor remains to be seen, though the BTP points out that the decision to bring charges in February 2000 was approved by the attorney general himself.

The government's plans for fraud law reform - outlined last year - will introduce a new general offence of fraud to replace conspiracy to defraud or specific offences.

But it is not clear whether this would have avoided the flaws which fatally undermined the Jubilee Line prosecution.

The current director of the Serious Fraud Office, Robert Wardle, favours more radical surgery.

He wants to see US-style plea bargaining which offers a low penalty for those who co-operate with prosecutors in return for a light sentence.

This latest disaster may have lent his argument an irresistible impetus.

60m fraud case collapse probed
23 Mar 05 |  London

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