Staple ready for round two of committee grilling

Mike Yuille examines the questions George Staple might face when the select committee quizzes him over the Levitt trial

The Serious Fraud Office paid £450,000 in fees to David Cocks QC and two juniors to prosecute Roger Levitt who walked away from court with a sentence of 180 hours' community service.

This and other titbits will be examined by MPs on the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee which meets this Wednesday for a second quizzing of SFO director George Staple over the conduct of the 1993 Levitt prosecution.

The spotlight falls on the handling of plea bargaining by the SFO and Cocks, and also an alleged conflict of interest in Solicitor General Derek Spencer's role heading the law officers' investigation.

Cocks and Spencer are both members of 5 King's Bench Walk, where Cocks is head of chambers.

Parliamentary sources indicate that the hearing could result in a formal committee report on the matter, resulting in further ramifications for the parties involved. The select committee session with Staple will be more detailed than the one which took place in May.

Staple says he now recalls meetings which took place with prosecution counsel which he had previously forgotten.

In addition, MPs have submissions from all the leading counsel, as well as detailed answers from Attorney General Sir Nicholas Lyell, to a score of questions from select committee member Mike O'Brien MP.

“This exposes a side of legal life that doesn't normally see the sunlight,” says O'Brien, MP for North Warwickshire and a former criminal solicitor advocate.

O'Brien says questions remain over “whether the Attorney General's answers in 1993 [about the conduct of the case] were as full and open as Parliament expects, or whether there was an attempt by the prosecution to divert attention elsewhere; and whether it was appropriate that the Solicitor General, from Cock's chambers, should investigate this matter.”

A core question is whether Cocks and the SFO knew that Levitt's acceptance of a plea deal would be solely on the basis of a non-custodial sentence. Cocks, the SFO and the Attorney General maintain that they did not. Defence solicitors and Levitt's lead counsel Jonathan Goldberg QC maintain they did.

The defence has already been proved right on another central issue – that, contrary to earlier prosecution statements, the prosecution was discussing a plea on a reduced charge with the SFO's participation on 5 November. A plea was agreed on 22 November.

Sir Nicholas Lyell says in parliamentary answers that Cocks, but not Staple, had checked for accuracy Lyell's original statement on this made on 9 December 1993, which had been cleared by the Solicitor General and shown to the Lord Chief Justice.

John Perry, then Levitt's solicitor, confirms he has also submitted evidence to the committee. “It is only now that the truth is coming out,” he says.

A letter from Perry's firm, Goldkorn Davies Mathias, to Levitt on 5 November 1993, just six days before the trial started, is an important part of the evidence.

The letter details “informal overtures” from the prosecution “with instructions from a high level” that a plea to a reduced charge would be accepted. This letter jogged Staple's memory when put to him by the select committee.

In June Sir Nicholas Lyell asked the SFO and Cocks to re-examine their records of events. Sir Derek Spencer chaired these meetings on 12, 14 and 15 June 1995 with officials, Cocks and the SFO.