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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 June, 2005, 15:08 GMT 16:08 UK
Juries face axe in fraud trials
Judges
Judges alone could decide on 15-20 fraud cases a year
Judges would sit without a jury in serious and complex fraud trials under government plans to be voted on by MPs and peers later this year.

Attorney General Lord Goldsmith suggested the measure would be used to handle between 15 and 20 cases in England and Wales each year.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats both oppose the plans, which will go to votes in Parliament in the autumn.

Lord Goldsmith denied that the move would undermine the jury trial system.

The plan comes after a 60m fraud case collapsed after almost two years in court, partly due to jury problems.

The trial of six men, accused of bribing London Underground officials, was abandoned after being blighted by illness among jurors and legal delays.

No-one should be under any illusion that this policy will stay restricted to serious fraud cases
Liberty

The government wants judges alone to decide such cases.

They have shunned the alternative of judges sitting alongside panels of experts or people with financial experience to decide cases.

Lord Goldsmith insisted the measure was not aimed at cutting costs and argued it was in the interests of justice. Some trials were currently too lengthy, too expensive and the jurors available for them were not representative of the population, he argued.

'No double standard'

The attorney general is also worried that some fraud charges have to be dropped because they are too complicated.

He said: "We cannot accept a double standard, we cannot have a situation of easy-to-prosecute blue collar crime and unprosecutable white collar crime.

"This problem has become worse as fraud has become increasingly complex over the years."

Lord Goldsmith
Lord Goldsmith denies the plan could be extended to other cases

Critics of the idea fear it could pave the way for removing juries from other cases but Lord Goldsmith insisted there were "no plans whatsoever" for doing so.

Trials without jury could only be used where the trial judge agreed to the prosecution request and where it was vetted by the most senior judge in England and Wales.

'Unnecessary'

The government faces stiff opposition to the proposal.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil rights campaign group Liberty, predicted complexity was an excuse which might be used in a host of trials.

LONG FRAUD TRIALS
2005: Jubilee line case lasted 21 months and cost 60m
1992: The Blue Arrow fraud trial lasted for 12 months and cost 40m. The convictions were quashed amid concerns about the complexity of issues presented to jury
1996: Ian and Kevin Maxwell, sons of entrepreneur Robert acquitted after an eight-month trial that cost 25m

She said: "This patronising approach is particularly surprising from a government apparently so keen for greater community involvement in the criminal justice system."

David Spens QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, said the plans were unnecessary as plans were already under way to make sure cases did not last more than three months.

Juries were well able to understand fraud cases because they were almost always a simple case of deciding whether or not somebody had been dishonest, he said.

Principles

Conservative shadow attorney general Dominic Grieve argued: "Juries are an essential mechanism for ensuring that 0the criminal justice system is seen to be fair and that decisions of guilt are taken independently of any branch of the state."

And Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten said: "Yet again Labour seem prepared to abandon the principle of fair trials and justice that have served this country well for decades."

Both parties claim the government has broken its promise to consult properly on the plan - a charge denied by ministers.

The measure was part of the Criminal Justice Act in 2003.

Because the Lords opposed the move, a deal was done so the whole bill became law - but the fraud trial plan can only be implemented if the House of Commons and House of Lords approve the details in separate votes.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Lord Goldsmith explains the reasons for the proposals



SEE ALSO:
60m fraud case collapse probed
23 Mar 05 |  London
Profile: Lord Goldsmith
24 Mar 05 |  UK Politics


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