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Tuesday, July 15, 2003
Trial by jury

I do not often side with our second chamber but, in the matter of attempts by the adorable David Blunkett to restrict the availability of jury trial, I am at one with the toffs.
Under the plans, a jury would be replaced by a judge in complicated serious fraud cases or where there was deemed to be a danger of a jury being interfered with.
More details here.

The argument that some trials are too complex to be explained before juries is poppycock. The Maxwell brothers' fraud, it is argued, was so complex that the jury was unable to follow its complexities.

As it happens, I followed this case. It hinged on the fact that Kevin Maxwell had signed the instruction to move pension funds illegally. (Are you with me so far? Complex, isn't it?) His defence was that the late, much lamented, Robert Maxwell - his father - had bullied him into it. The fact was not disputed. The jury decided to side with the brothers: a combination of the Nuremberg defence ('I was only obeying orders') and the idiocy plea ('I did not know I was doing wrong'), clearly carried the day. Given some judicious character-blackening of the saintly Robert, the result was fairly predictable.

This sounds like a botched prosecution to me: the Nuremberg defence wasn't good enough to save the Nazis and, as any fule kno, ignorance of the law is no excuse.

Now, because of some detailed knowledge of the Maxwell organisation, I am able to tell you a hitherto untold story.
Many years ago, an employee of the organisation was instructed to do something distinctly dodgy by the great man himself. Having asked for the instructions to be given in writing (refused because it was 'a simple enough thing to do'), the employee decided that he would not be a party to breaking the law. And if that meant being fired, so be it.

He began a half-hearted attempt to do as he had been told but made sure that one of the auditors 'found out' what was going on. When the auditor blew the whistle on what was being prepared, the senior partners told Maxwell to stop. The proposed practice was abandoned.
Given that a lowly employee could demonstrate resolve of this sort, don't you think that Maxwell's sons could have been as principled?

And was this lowly employee ever called to help refute the Nuremberg defence? He was not.

So, as I said, botched prosecutions do not justify attempts to abandon trial by jury. The O J Simpson trial didn't lead to pressure to abandon jury trial for murder, just because the jury got it wrong. But that wasn't the end of the matter, was it?

And because the jury may have got it wrong in the Maxwell brothers' case, the law should be looking for other ways to bring them to book; the government should not automatically seek to abandon the jury system in such cases.

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