Sunday 28 January 2007
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Norris loses appeal


By Russell Hotten
Last Updated: 1:26am GMT 26/01/2007

British executives were warned about America extending its legal reach after a UK businessman today lost his High Court appeal against extradition to the US on charges of price-fixing between 1989 and 2000.

Lawyers for Ian Norris, 64, the former chief executive of UK engineering group Morgan Crucible, argued that the cartel activity was not a criminal offence until the Enterprise Act was introduced in 2003.

But two High Court judges upheld a previous court ruling that the allegations amounted to conspiracy to de-fraud in Common Law and therefore constituted an extraditable offence.

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The court also dismissed the claim that extradition would violate Mr Norris's human rights because he has suffered serious health problems.

His legal team will within the next two weeks seek leave to appeal to the House of Lords. But there is no guarantee this will be granted.

Mr Norris's solicitor, Alistair Graham, partner at White & Case, said: "We have been saying for more than two years that no criminal offence for price fixing existed in the UK prior to the enactment of the Enterprise Act 2002.

"Nobody in the UK has ever been prosecuted for price fixing under the banner of conspiracy to defraud. Any decision in this matter has significant ramifications for large numbers of UK businessmen and women, who will be potentially exposed to price fixing charges in relation to the period prior to 2002."

Piers Reynolds, a lawyer at Allen & Overy, said today's decision would "irreversibly" raise the risks for UK businessmen by enabling prosecutions for conduct that may have taken place before the 2003 adoption of an anti-cartel law".

He added: "Price-fixing before the entry of the Enterprise Act has now been made a criminal offence. Concern will be increased by the current climate of aggressive public enforcement by the US and UK authorities, with the US authorities increasingly seeking to prosecute non-US nationals."

Mr Norris would be the first foreigner extradited to the US on price-fixing charges, after having been identified as a key target in the Department of Justice's decade-long bid to clamp down on international antitrust crime.

He is being sought under the controversial "fast-track" extradition arrangements with the US, the same legislation used to send the NatWest former bankers to Texas to face Enron-related fraud charges in July.

Business leaders, lawyers, and civil rights groups argue that these rules do not protect British citizens from inappropriate or unlawful prosecutions. Introduced with the aim of dealing with terrorists and drug-dealers, the laws are being targeted are alleged white collar criminals.

The Serious Fraud Office is pursuing a group of generic drugmakers for allegedly colluding to fix the prices of some medicines sold to the National Health Service before the introduction of the Enterprise Act. That case was suspended pending the High Court's decision on Mr Norris's appeal.

A spokesman for the Serious Fraud Office said: "Today's judgement [in Norris v US Gov't] makes clear, the fact that though the Enterprise Act introduced a statutory offence of dishonest price-fixing, it does not mean that cartel activity, if dishonest, cannot be charged as conspiracy to defraud. If the evidence justifies it, conspiracy to defraud is the appropriate charge for such activity."

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