Byline: JO BUTLER
SWINDLERS should get lighter sentences in return for owning up to their crimes, according to Britain's new fraudbuster.
Robert Wardle, who took over as head of the Serious Fraud Office yesterday, said U.S.style plea bargaining could cut the enormous cost of complicated trials and help prevent criminals avoiding justice.
Critics will see the move as letting criminals off the hook, and an attempt to avoid further embarrassment to the SFO which has suffered a series of humiliations over the collapse of high-profile trials.
Under the U.S. system, criminals may thrash out a deal with the judge, agreeing to plead guilty to a less serious offence in return for a more lenient sentence rather than insist on going to trial.
Although plea bargaining does exist in the UK, it is done only on an informal basis.
Mr Wardle said seeing fraudsters get a relatively light sentence was a price worth paying for ensuring they were brought to justice and freeing resources to target more offenders.
In an interview with the Financial Times he said: 'I would like to see a perhaps more structured approach to plea bargaining, perhaps slightly more on the American lines.
'One of the things defence lawyers often say to me is that their client might plead if he knew what he was in for. They want certainty.' He said judges should be able to give defence lawyers a clear idea about possible jail terms, fines or disqualifications as a director in return for their client pleading guilty.
Mr Wardle takes over at a time of renewed criticism of the SFO after years spent carefully trying to counter its nickname of 'Serious Farce Office' were spoiled by its failure to secure convictions in the ten- month Wickes trial which ended last year.
All three defendants were cleared of any wrongdoing following a six-year investigation.
Past cases include the pound sterling20million trial of the Maxwell brothers which ended with their acquittal after 131 days.
The SFO has been stung by plea …