A judge in Milan has postponed a decision on whether Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi should face trial on tax fraud charges.

The decision was taken to allow defence lawyers to study new prosecution evidence.

Six months before Berlusconi is due to fight a general election campaign, Judge Fabio Paparella began presiding over the preliminary hearing. 

Berlusconi was represented by his team of lawyers. The hearing was closed to journalists.  

The charges relate to a television rights deal in the United States by his Mediaset communications company. 

The 69-year-old prime minister is named as a co-defendant in the case with 13 other Mediaset executives, including the company's chairman, Fedele Confalonieri, and a British lawyer, David Mills, husband of British Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell. 

Berlusconi was named as being under investigation in the case in February 2003, but given the timing of Friday's hearing, six months short of a general election scheduled for 9 April, he could be forced to stand trial during an election campaign.  

Berlusconi and his co-accused are charged with tax fraud, false accounting, embezzlement and money laundering.

If convicted, the defendants could face jail sentences of between four and 12 years. 

The hearing is the latest in a long string of legal battles for Berlusconi, who has several times been tried on fraud charges relating to his business activities but has never been convicted.

In most cases he has benefited from a statute of limitations.