Acquittals by British Jury Bring Calls for Change

String of failures for 'Serious Fraud Office'

AFTER a jury's acquittal of the sons of late media tycoon Robert Maxwell, British authorities plan to review both the courts' handling of fraud cases and safeguards against large-scale business fraud.

The review appears likely to result in an end to jury trials of people accused of commercial malpractice. Kevin and Ian Maxwell had been accused of conspiring to defraud the pension fund of Mirror Group Newspapers of 122 million ($185 million). On Friday, after a 131-day trial, a 12-person jury found them not guilty, along with fellow director of the company Larry Trachtenberg.

Attorney General Nicholas Lyell says he doubts whether juries are capable of dealing properly with complex, high-level cases of fraud.

Mr. Lyell says he will consider replacing juries with "a judge sitting with a panel of experts."

George Staple, director of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), which brought the prosecutions, announced that he would soon be leaving his job.

There were strong official indications that other possible fraud charges against the Maxwell brothers would be dropped.

The London Times has called for the SFO to be scrapped and possibly replaced with a body modeled on the Securities and Exchange Commission in the United States.

Until, the SFO was set up in the 1980s, there had been little supervision of commercial activity in Britain.

Alex Carlile, a Liberal Democrat member of Parliament who is also a highly regarded legal expert, called the trial outcome "disastrous" and demanded that Lyell justify "the enormous public expense" involved. The prosecution's cost is estimated at more than 25 million.

The trial received massive media coverage because of its association with Robert Maxwell who, before he was lost at sea in Spanish waters in 1991, was one of Britain's most controversial figures in media and publishing.

Maxwell left behind a crumbling business empire with 4 billion in debts and a 441 million hole in its pension fund. The media magnate and his sons allegedly raided the fund in an unsuccessful bid to rescue his group from bankruptcy. Much of the money was recovered from within the media empire.

The Maxwell trial was only the latest example of the SFO's failure to secure guilty verdicts in cases of alleged fraud.

In 1994 George Walker, a businessman accused of a 164 million fraud, was acquitted. A year earlier, the SFO tried to prosecute Turkish Cypriot businessman Asil Nadir for an alleged 500 million fraud, but he fled the country before an arrest was made.

Paul Boateng, opposition Labour Party spokesman on legal affairs, called the outcome in the Maxwell case "a grave and potentially fatal setback for the SFO" and demanded a "fundamental overhaul" of the system for bringing to justice people guilty of large-scale commercial fraud.

Mr. Staple, who has been under heavy criticism for past SFO failures, says his decision to quit his job had "nothing to do with the outcome of the Maxwell trial."

"It was a prosecution that had to be brought, and it was our job to carry out a thorough investigation," he says.

SFO expenditures totaled about 11 million. The Maxwells and Mr. Trachtenberg received government-paid legal aid to pay for their defense, and this accounted for another 10 million.

Lyell's suggestion that judges and expert panels are better qualified than juries to deal with complex fraud cases is being heavily attacked by the civil rights group Liberty, which says juries are the "best and fairest way" of handling criminal prosecutions.

Michael Levi, a criminologist at the University of Wales, says juries should continue to deal with fraud cases, but suggests that they should include more people with financial expertise.

Gerald Acher, a leading figure in the Institute of Chartered Accountants, says the law should be changed in another way: "Fraud should be identified as an offense in its own right rather than having to rely on earlier statutes, which have been overtaken by the complexity of the financial world as it is today." In the Maxwell-Trachtenberg case the main charge was one of conspiracy.

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