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After racking up at least £10m in legal fees, the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has abandoned a case after being told of a crucial legal point that lawyers argue it should have been aware of from the outset.
The case centred on SFO claims that marine insurance contracts sold to Scottish fishermen were invalid as they did not have regulatory approval. However, Section 132 of the Financial Services Act states that insurance contracts are still valid even if they are not authorised. The SFO subsequently upheld this point.
A senior lawyer connected to the case said: “These are points it should have known from the outset. It would have avoided six years of investigation and millions of pounds of lawyers’ fees.”
Peters & Peters, on advice from Fountain Court barrister Craig Orr, raised the issue on behalf of defendant Francois Verkaeren. Soon after, the SFO’s director Robert Wardle, who had instructed three silks to fight the case, ordered it to be pulled.
Verkaeren and three others, all employees of insurance business Tower Risk Manage-ment, were charged with conspiring to defraud by inducing the fishermen into buying their insurance policies. The SFO alleged that Tower was falsely holding itself out as an authorised agent of Milan company SIAC.
His Honour Judge McKin-non upheld a second defence that Tower was a valid agent.
The SFO did not advance its final claim that Tower did not have sufficient funds to meet any claims. It said it caved in on public interest grounds, after it was told to inspect the validity of each individual insurance contract. The expense this would have incurred outweighed the value of any resulting compensation.
The Peters & Peters lawyers involved, Claire Lipworth and Michael O’Kane, disagree that it would have cost so much, saying many of the contracts formed part of block insurance arrangements.