Before it began, government lawyers foresaw the criminal conspiracy trial of former budget director Bert Lance and three others going to the jury in six to eight weeks.

The trial at U.S. District Court here is now six weeks old -- and not a single substantive witness has taken the stand.

One reason for the slow pace is that defense attorneys have forced the prosecutors to bring in expert witnesses to identify thousands of pages of bank documents in evidence -- virtually one document at a time.

But there have been other, unforeseen delays including three deaths, one birth and two northwest Georgia hailstorms.

Lance and his codefendants are charged with 33 counts of misapplying banks funds, falsifying loan records and defrauding the government to get some $20 million in loans.

On trial with the 48-year-old Lance are his former trustee, Thomas M. Mitchell, 44, who handled Lance's business affairs when he went to Washington; Richard T. Carr, 43, a onetime northwest Georgia banking associate of Lance, and H. Jackson Mullins, 49, a druggist in Lance's hometown of Calhoun who allegedly lent his name to a variety of financial manipulations.

All have pleaded innocent to the offenses, most of which allegedly took place while Lance was a banker in Georgia and before he joined the Carter administration.

In its detailed challenge to the government's mass of documents gathered from 41 banks, the defense clearly is seeking to undermine jurors' confidence in the prosecution's case.

Leading the challenge is Lance's Atlanta attorney, Nickolas P. Chilivis, who from his opening statement has evoked the image of the Big Government from Washington persecuting four well-meaning, small-town businessmen.

Lance, who at the outset seemed mildly amused at his attorney's repeated challenges, has appeared to grow restless as the trial drags on. His wife, LaBelle, passes time reading inspirational literature.

The tedious pace has exacerbated tensions between Chilivis and chief prosecutor Edwin J. Tomko. Judge Charles A. Moye, Jr., remarking a "communications breakdown," has urged them on several occasions to patch up their differences in the interest of speeding the trial.

The trial was postponed one day so Lance could attend the funeral of his 94-year-old father, T. Jackson Lance. The fathers of prosecutor Marvin Loewy and an FBI agent involved in the case, Tim Huhn, also died within the same week.

Two days were lost to hailstorms and another when defendant Carr's wife, Doreen, gave birth to a 9-pound boy.