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Monday, February 16, 1998 Published at 19:42 GMT


Trial by jury in fraud cases could end
image: [ The jury may have to stand down in fraud cases . . . ]
The jury may have to stand down in fraud cases . . .

The British Government has published details of proposals which could end the jury system in some complicated fraud trials.

A Home Office consultation document sets out a number of options for dealing with fraud cases rather than sending them to be heard in front of a randomly-selected jury.

The move follows a number of high-profile and complex fraud cases where the defendants have been acquitted.

The Home Office Minister, Alun Michael, cited the huge cost of such cases to the taxpayer and the strain on judges, juries and defendants.

"There may be a case for considering some change to the system to ensure that justice can be delivered more effectively and public confidence in the system maintained," he said.

Maxwell case prompted review

The trial of brothers Ian and Kevin Maxwell in 1996 was one of the key cases which prompted the announcement proposing changes to the system.

[ image: The Maxwell case ended without a conviction]
The Maxwell case ended without a conviction
The two Maxwell brothers were found not guilty of fraud charges after a trial which lasted eight months and cost taxpayers more than 25 million.

The jurors in the case spent 11 nights in a hotel before reaching their verdict.

Another case which caused concern was the year-long Blue Arrow fraud trial, which ended with four prominent City financial advisers being convicted of conspiracy to defraud.

However, their convictions were later quashed on appeal.

Alternatives to the present system

Under the government proposals, four options are put forward for serious fraud cases:

  • jurors are chosen for their specialist knowledge
  • a hearing is held before just one judge or a panel of judges
  • a hearing is held before a judge sitting with qualified lay people
  • a judge narrows down the issues at stake and produces a summary before the jury decides on dishonesty.

    Proposals meet criticism

    However, many lawyers think the criticism of jurors in fraud trials is unfair.

    [ image: Monty Raphael: jurors can understand fraud cases]
    Monty Raphael: jurors can understand fraud cases
    Monty Raphael, a solicitor for the Maxwell brothers, said: "Jurors are capable of understanding seriously complex fraud cases if they are well presented by the Crown, if the trial is well conducted by suitably-trained judges, and - it has to be said - if the defence is equally well conducted."

    Concern has also been expressed by civil liberties campaigners.

    John Wadham, the director of the civil rights group, Liberty, said: "The right to trial by jury is a fundamental part of our constitution and is the only democratic element in a criminal justice system."

    However, the government's proposals did receive support from a former director of the Serious Fraud Office.

    George Staple, who headed the office from 1992-1997, said: "I think nothing has happened in the last 10 years to indicate that the question of juries in these very complex trials is not still a problem."

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