Juries follow fraud cases closely, contrary to popular opinion
Whatever the reasons – besides innocence, of course – for Harry Redknapp’s acquittal, I doubt it was due to the jury failing to understand the case. A couple of bonuses/investments, a Monaco bank account and an ill-judged exchange with a News of the World reporter. It was not hard to follow once the jury grasped that a bonus was taxable.
Harry had a lot going for him: sporting fame, an engaging personality, the pretty modest sums involved relative to his earnings and the hopes of thousands of Spurs and, probably, England fans – even before the perfectly timed Capello resignation.
But should the trial have been left to an expert judging panel instead? Some question whether a jury is likely to decide tax fraud cases on the number-crunching evidence or for other reasons, such as how the accused spent the tax money they saved – women, sports cars, roulette and spilt champagne?
The tax background in such trials – for example, those involving tax cheating in the construction industry – is often complex, with a vast range of HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) documentation involved. The jury probably starts out as baffled as the advocates when they receive the papers. But the big weapons the prosecution has in getting a jury to grasp the issues are time, graphic evidence and the fact that even the most sophisticated tax frauds, in the end, come down to a few lies told in a few critical documents.
HMRC has developed sophisticated charts, graphs and schedules that work well on screens with zoom and highlighter facilities. Most of us digest this sort of information much more easily in this form than in print or by word of mouth.
There is, of course, no doubt that a bit of misspent wealth, offstage sex and bacchanalian indulgence help. Those convicted of major tax fraud vary greatly in their habits. The high-livers – or damaged livers – make for the spiciest trials. Those who invest in gilts and build their pensions are harder graft for prosecutors.
The recession has made life tougher for the indicted tax defendant too. Tax fraud looks less like a victimless crime. The solemn prosecutor lamenting the schools that could have been built with the cash salted away gets a better hearing in times such as these.
So how can we gauge the jury’s grasp of a case as it unfolds? Generally, the verdicts offer a clue. In a multi-hander it is usually not hard to see why verdicts differentiate between defendants. In many cases, though, we also have the battery of questions that today’s more engaged jurors ask, suggesting a quite subtle grasp of what is proceeding. An accountant, retail supervisor or plumber who does his own books will probably carry the odd less numerate juror along with them.
The idea that juries switch off when confronted with such cases is not my experience. Whatever their final verdict, most seem to apply themselves to the job in hand and quite often find it interesting. And that is even without Harry Redknapp in the witness box.