Staying on the white side of the law

Keith Oliver

Considering the recent fortunes of two targets of his admiration – he admits that he is a passionate supporter of Manchester United and that his hero is Eric Cantona – Keith Oliver no doubt hopes his own fortunes will be different.

A litigation partner with West End firm Peters & Peters, Oliver is instructed to defend Kevin Maxwell in the fraud trial, which begins next week against the Maxwell brothers and Larry Trachtenberg.

Mention the word Maxwell and it usually elicits a media tirade. The public perception of those accused of white collar crime is, Oliver says, "unfortunate given the development that the process is determined by the Serious Fraud Office being judged on its 'hit rate' in securing a conviction in a particular case".

He says that if the accused is acquitted it does not necessarily follow the SFO has lost another case, as is generally reported, or that it is an SFO disaster because its remit is that it fairly prosecutes cases where criminal acts have prima facie been committed, and so presents them to the jury.

Oliver is no stranger to adverse press coverage of his clients. He represented stockbroker Anthony Parnes in the Guinness trial, and remembers reading that the original verdict was a triumph for the jury system the day after the verdict. Oliver queries whether a verdict of not guilty would also have been reported as a triumph for the jury system and considers this is an inappropriate way to regard the system. Parnes' conviction is subject to a Court of Appeal hearing after a successful application to the Home Secretary for the matter to be referred on the basis of material non-disclosure.

This year will be Oliver's fifteenth year of practice as a lawyer, and he admits to having had "a romantic attraction to law at a young age" that included working as a clerk in a West End practice when he was 14. He went on to study law, did his articles at Peters & Peters, and "has never managed to escape".

Although his practice also encompasses commercial litigation, Oliver considers that white collar crime practitioners are charged with the task of defending both the system and their own clients.

He cites both his firm's senior partner, Monty Raphael, and John Clitheroe of Kingsley Napley as instrumental in boosting the recognition of this sector of practice as a discipline in its own right in the past 15 years.

Previously, it had been considered a poor relation, but with the explosion of high-profile cases in the 1980s, it is now seen as combining the two dimensions of criminal litigation and commercial practice and litigation.

Oliver stresses he cannot comment on the current cases he is instructed in, but says "if society demands that those who are culpable are to be accused of a crime, there must be equality of arms – they must have the right to defend themselves properly against the power of the State".

He adds: "The starting point is that if you have a fully integrated and well-resourced prosecuting authority, and impose on it the obligation to investigate, and prosecute and instruct quality counsel, then it is self-evident that a fair system of justice should permit individuals an opportunity and resources to defend themselves."

Although he enjoys locking horns with City lawyers on a day-to-day basis, Oliver says he never saw himself as one of them, preferring the sharper end of practice doing work which taxes his skills from a commercial perspective.

Mishcon de Reya partner Gary Miller, who specialises in fraud litigation, considers Oliver "a worthy opponent and adversary and a creative lawyer".

And barrister Clare Montgomery of 3 Raymond Buildings, who has worked with Oliver on the Parnes case and is also instructed in the current Maxwell case, describes him as "fantastically industrious and unflagging, which is a very important feature in such cases". She adds: "He is also fantastically enthusiastic, I spend the entire time being bombarded by ideas."

His enthusiasm extends to his executive committee membership of the Association

Internationale des Jeune Avocats, where the term 'jeune' is widely interpreted as being 30 to 45. Oliver admits to being in the middle of that range; his confessed love of Manchester United stems from the 1960s when his heroes were Best, Law and Charlton.

Oliver says: "In most fraud cases, the facts are not in dispute for the jury – what is in dispute is whether the defendant knew what he or she was doing was prohibited by law.

"It is not a football match, there does not necessarily have to be winners or losers."

Linda Tsang