Time to evaluate role of jury

The prosecutions of the Maxwells have come to a conclusion that has disappointmented many, though the judgment of Mr Justice Buckley has won approval from most members of the profession.

Apart from the ritualistic condemnation of the SFO by some commentators, what is pleasing is the constructive discussion now taking place with the aim of discovering how big fraud cases can best be tried.

Before I set out some thoughts of my own, let me say that all reports tell us that Lord Justice Phillips tried the case impeccably; counsel on both sides were excellent and the jury paid close attention to the evidence as well as giving conscientious consideration before reaching its verdict.

We have heard a lot about juries in these massive cases with suggestions ranging from keeping them to abolishing them altogether. In a letter to The Times, Jonathan Goldberg QC made the valid point that counsel and solicitors for prosecution and defence have months to prepare the case at their own pace, reading and re-reading the evidence with help from accountants and other professionals as needed.

I think that we expect a great deal of our jurors, too much in long cases, and that to expect someone of limited education to sit for six months hearing evidence of the utmost complexity is not only a mighty imposition but makes one wonder whether justice is being done, whatever the verdict.

I believe we should reduce the numbers of jurors and seek better academic qualifications for them, but we need to go further. The Roskill Committee, whose report led to the birth of the SFO, commissioned research designed to assist the jury in understanding the issues. They suggested measures including supplying outlines of the case to be read before prosecution began, and this should be revisited. The judge's role should also be re-examined. There are still too many cases where uncontroverted evidence is not agreed and where issues which could be agreed are thrashed out in court.

Has the time come to give judges power to force parties into agreement? Dare I suggest we should have a panel of judges with the right experience presiding over these cases, and that they should be trained? I do not know whether it is still the case, but some years ago in Germany judges appointed to try commercial cases were given a course at a university.