THERE has always seemed to be a big gap between the way in which the American and British courts handle cases of white-collar crime. In Britain prosecutions of a kind that would be dealt within months in the United States often drag on for years. There are doubtless many reasons for this discrepancy but one is the frequent use of plea-bargaining on the other side of the Atlantic. By persuading an accused person to plead guilty to a part of the prosecution's case in return for its agreement not to pursue all the charges, the legal process can be considerably foreshortened. Of course, it leaves some questions unanswered but on balance it certainly has advantages.

Last week's conclusion of the very long-running charges of bribery and corruption against BAE Systems came about partly because of an agreement between the American and British prosecutors to follow the plea-bargaining approach. As a result the company will pay a substantial fine for relatively minor offences but will not face further proceedings on major issues, some of which had complex political dimensions. The argument against plea-bargaining is that justice is not fully done. On the other hand it ensures that cases are dealt with while they are still fresh in the public's mind and that legal costs are considerably reduced. Furthermore, in the vast majority of cases, those found guilty on a specimen charge are unlikely to try the law's patience again.