THE TRIAL OF THE CENTURYThe Maxwell case kicked off in a blaze of media coverage last week.
Jonathan Ames reports on the opening shots.Four years have slipped by since newspaper baron Robert Maxwell fell over the side of the Lady Ghislaine as she sailed around the Canary Islands.
Since then, the media spotlight has been focused on his two sons, who, shortly after their father's death, were accused of one of the largest frauds in British history.The trial of Ian and Kevin Maxwell - and two co-defendants, Larry Tratchenberg and Robert Bunn - began last week in an annexe to the Old Bailey in Chancery Lane.
At its heart are allegations of fraud which involve more than £100 million.
The trial will cost the taxpayer at least £10 million and is expected to run for a minimum of six months.Some Fleet Street journalists have already dubbed the Maxwell hearing as Britain's version of the OJ 'trial of the century' in Los Angeles.
It is a forced comparison which never gets off the ground except in as much as both cases will eat up forests of newsprint.And the newspapers had a field day as the curtain went up.
Much was made of the courtroom logistics, which were variously described as 'fiasco' and 'farce'.
High-tech computer screens reportedly went blank and sophisticated sound systems fell silent.But the defence solicitors involved remained unperturbed by what they view as early hitches in a system which could have much to recommend it.
Lawyers at both Peters & Peters and Kingsley Napley - who act for Kevin and Ian respectively - have already built up experience with the latest in courtroom technology.John Clitheroe of Kingsley Napley, a veteran of the Barlow Clowes trial, said last week that 'a few glitches' in the technology at the early stages are understandable and acceptable.
'They are soon worked out and do not really pose a major problem,' he said.Indeed, Ian Burton of Burton Copeland, the firm acting for Maxwell financier Robert Bunn, said the sound problems experienced so far amounted to little more than 'someone not properly plugging in the microphones'.The technology on-line in the Chancery Lane annexe amounts essentially to the software package LiveNote which, according to its developers, Smith Bernal, 'enables participants to view, mark and annotate written testimony on noteboo k computers within two seconds of the words being spoken'.
That means that lawyers sitting in court can mark key passages of testimony and search for key words and phrases.In total, the courtroom is kitted out with 16 computer monitors which are available to the judge, lawyers, jury and even the press gallery.
In addition to LiveNote, the courtroom presentation system Showcase is also being used to display quickly any page in the massive trial bundles.
And those bundles have been compressed onto CD-ROMs making them much more portable.For Rod Fletcher of Russell Jones & Walker, which represents Mr Tratchenberg, this trial is his first exposure to such a degree of courtroom technology.
'There were a couple of early teething problems which were slightly embarrassing.
But ultimately, I think it will be a very efficient and useful system,' he said.In broader terms, the Maxwell case has again highlighted two controversial issues.
The first is the question of whether juries made up of men and women straight off the Clapham Omnibus are capable of understanding the evidence in trials where complex fraud is charged.Mr Clitheroe is in no doubt that some commentators will paint the Maxwell trial as a 'make or break' case for having juries hear complex fraud cases.
But there should be no question of abandoning juries, he said.'The main criterion for success is the ability of the judge and counsel to explain things in a way that the jury will understand,' said Mr Clitheroe.
And it should not be that difficult, he maintained.
'If maths teachers can make children understand quite complicated concepts then judges and barristers ought to be able to explain these issues to intelligent adults.'There is an element of prosecution sour grapes mixed in with any criticism of juries in fraud trials, says Mr Burton.
'The only time you get an outcry is when people are acquitted.
When there is a conviction everyone is happy with the way the system works.'He maintains that juries of ordinary people are perfect for fraud charges because they cut through the complexities and make judgments on the central issue.
'They study witnesses to see how they say things and form a view on honesty or dishonesty which is the core of any fraud case.'Mr Fletcher, too, is 'a great believer in jury trials'.
But he anticipates that they will carry the can if the case collapses, with the prosecution side blaming them for supposedly not understanding the case.There is also unanimity amongst the defence lawyers over the other main talking point surrounding the Maxwell trial: legal aid eligibility.
Peters & Peters partner Monty Raphael echoed the sentiments of all the solicitors concerned.
He is 'perfectly happy to stand by what the judge said in court on the first day'.Indeed, Mr Justice Phillips left the jury in no doubt that they should dismiss press debate over whether the defendants - especially two brothers - deserved to have their defence funded through state funds.They were able to satisfy the Legal Aid Board that they met the criteria and that is all that matters, instructed Mr Justice Phillips.On the wider issue of legal aid for the 'apparently wealthy' all the lawyers again sang the same tune.
Mr Raphael maintains that the Lord Chancellor was right to address the subject earlier this year.
'We must make sure that the money is well spent and things are under control,' says Mr Raphael.
'But one has to balance that against the resources that are available to the Crown to investigate and prosecute cases.'That level playing field point was reinforced by Mr Burton.
Each defence case in the Maxwell trial will run into millions of pounds he predicted, attributing the need to spend so much on the SFO and the Crown.
'It is the prosecution who make it expensive.
They draw up the size of the ring and we must react to their case.'The Maxwell case is also the first major fraud trial brought by the SFO since the Davie review was released by the Attorney-General at the end of last March.
Essentially it recommended that the often criticised office remain relatively unchanged apart from some minor tinkering.The SFO now has a 'more fluid' relationship with the fraud divisions of the Crown Prosecution Service, the most obvious manifestation being a joint case vetting committee.
The office has also lowered its monetary threshold for accepting a case from £5 million down to £1 million.While those subtle changes have no direct bearing on the Maxwell trial, it is a safe enough assumption that the SFO will be back in the firing line if the prosecution fails to win the day in Chancery Lane.LESSONS TO BE LEARNED FROM THE USARobert Verkaik talks to a fraud specialist who is being sent to the US to examine plea bargaining.Keen to re-establish the City's credentials as a leading financial centre the world can trust, City regulators are now examining other countries' fraud control systems.Later this year leading fraud consultant Rowan Bosworth-Davies will go to the USA to carry out research into plea bargaining in trials where criminal fraud is alleged.
His final report will be sent to the Law Society, Bar Council, the SFO, Crown Prosecution Service and the Attorney-General's department.Mr Bosworth-Davies' investigation is being sponsored by this year's 1995 Winston Churchill travelling fellowship award, which he has already won.
His research will include sitting with judges in New York and Philadelphia, and interviewing regulators at the US Securities and Exchange Commission.
The fellowship hopes his conclusions will help make trials of fraud charges more effective in this country.Says Mr Bosworth-Davies, 44, a former fraud detective with the Metropolitan and City Police company fraud department, now working for Titmuss Sainer & Dechert: 'The government has made a series of savage mistakes about the way in which it administers fraud.
A lot of those failures stem from a lack of understanding of what fraud is really all about.
There is a temptation to put fraud and fraudsters on a pedestal, differentiating it from other crime.''I believe that it is a class-based thing.
There is a tradition running through white-collar criminology which teaches us that "crimes of the powerful" are treated in a different way.' he believes this may have also protected the guilty from investigation.Mr Bosworth-Davies, who has also served as investigations manager with FIMBRA, believes that cases where City fraud is alleged have become over-complicated and feels, for example, that the Blue Arrow case, which cost £40 million and a year to run, could have been handled by a stipendiary magistrate.'There is no reason', he says, 'why the charges could not have been made under the Companies Act and the case brought for a fraction of the costs at a magistrates' court.'The government's attempts to be seen finally to do something about fraud in the City began in the mid 1980s, with the birth of the SFO and the Financial Services Act.Their ultimate failure, Mr Bosworth-Davies believes, is due to the same government's policy is starving the SFO and City regulators of the cash needed to mount thorough investi gations.He believes that a series of high profile SFO cases, including Polly Peck and Roger Levitt, has 'led to a perception in the mind of the public that serious fraud is not capable of being dealt with effectively'.So how can we learn from the American experience and, in particular, their plea bargaining system? Mr Bosworth-Davies' previous research into white-collar crime, including an MA at Exeter University, has led him to conclude it is the conviction which has the greatest effect on the City fraudster.
'A conviction not only means a criminal sentence but also leads to a total exclusion from working in the City,' he says.It is thought that a formalised system of plea bargaining, which has been successfully established in the USA, has led to greater numbers being prosecuted for white-collar crime.
Because our courts do not have a formalised plea bargaining system, plea bargaining in this country is only tolerated on an unofficial basis.To some extent Mr Bosworth-Davies has taken a lead from the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice and SFO Director George Staple, who have asked for further research into plea bargaining.
'Most of my working life', he says, 'has been spent dealing with fraud and white-collar crime.
It seems to me looking into plea bargaining was worthy of study, as far as the prosecution and administration of making trials of fraud charges more effective is concerned.'