Thursday 7 April 2005

60m fraud fiasco prompts fresh inquiries into jury trials

With Watson Burton LLP Law Firm

The issue of juries in serious fraud trials has again come under scrutiny after the collapse of the 60m fraud case involving the London Underground. The case, which has been up and running for seven years, came to a stop on Tuesday 22 March after almost two years of trial. Lord Woolf the Lord Chief Justice has called for reforms of the way trials such as this are conducted, stating that they should last no longer than 3 months, or possibly six months in exceptional cases.

This particular case has brought the issue of jury trials to the forefront of legal debate. During the trial which lasted 272 days, just over half that time was spent hearing evidence. The jury had been sworn in for almost two years of court time at the collapse of the trial, and it has been admitted that the evidence would be hard to recount at any discussion amongst the jurors. During the trial one woman juror was dismissed after suffering from stress, another juror was dismissed because of the difficulty of living on the expenses he was being paid and another woman was dismissed because she fell pregnant. But, perhaps the most interesting reason for a juror being dismissed was their arrest for benefit fraud. This again highlighting the problem of using juries in this type of case. When a trial commences for such a long period of time, sickness and other reasons for absence are bound to have affect on all parties concerned, not just the jury.

Last year the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) came under attack for it's low prosecution rate. The SFO is an independent Government department that investigates and prosecutes serious and complex fraud; when taking on a case they consider the potential value of the fraud i.e. is it over 1m, whether the case has an international dimension, whether there is a public concern over the particular type of fraud concerned and whether there is specialised knowledge involved in prosecuting a fraud of that nature.

Last year the SFO had a conviction rate of only 51% which has been blamed on the lack of a general offence of fraud, something which the SFO hopes will be rectified with the Government's Fraud Bill proposed last May. The SFO believes that this will unify ways in which people can be prosecuted and therefore lead to more convictions. However, some believe that the main problem in serious fraud trials lies with the jury. As a result of the complexity and volume of evidence in such cases, it is believed that members of the jury may fail to understand the importance of certain pieces of evidence. It is also claimed that these long trials place an unfair burden on jury members who often have other commitments, and that where a local jury is used, particularly in relation to crimes which involve violence, it is unfair to subject local people to the violence of local criminals.

There has been issues raised in the past about the minimum level of numeracy and literacy a juror in these types of trials should have attained. However, from recent events it appears that the main problem could lie with the length of the trial and the fairness to the jurors of spending this amount of time listening to complicated evidence.

There has been suggestion that fraud trials should be broken down into smaller individual trials to avoid the burden of a long trial for both jurors and witnesses. However, the main issue still remains that the use of juries in these trials is under huge scrutiny and this issue must be addressed sooner rather than later to avoid a repeat of this huge cost to the public.

Mark Heath and Rachael Douthwaite are lawyers in Watson Burton LLP's Commercial Fraud Practice. If you have any questions relating to this article, or any other area of fraud, contact Mark Heath, Head of Commercial Fraud at Watson Burton LLP, on 0191 244 4306 or at mark.heath.

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