SFO lawyer urges US-style plea bargains

ONE of the leading lawyers at the Serious Fraud Office has called for an extension of plea bargaining as a means of curbing the soaring cost of prosecuting City fraudsters.

Chris Dickson last week told a conference on white collar crime that the US plea-bargaining system might lead defendants to admit guilt earlier.

Dickson, senior assistant director (legal) at the SFO, said the move was the only way to prevent the waste of time and money on trials for defendants who change their plea at an advanced stage.

He also said the current bargaining system used in English courts allowed defendants to accept plea deals if they like it or walk away if they don't, while the prosecution is bound.

Dickson, a barrister, was speaking to about 200 lawyers, accountants and businessmen at the London conference run by Compliance Control, London-based consultants to financial services companies.

He also called for a reduction in bureaucracy in fraud prosecutions and longer disqualifications for offenders, and welcomed the Home Secretary's proposals for limiting the disclosure of unused prosecution material.

Dickson also wanted the courts to pursue individual assets of offenders rather than their wealth – the method used by US authorities. He added: “There is expenditure which can and should be saved.”

Three senior lawyers used the conference to warn that fraud was so rampant it threatened the success of all businesses. They told the conference that dishonesty was now costing business millions of pounds each year.

Miles Laddie, a partner with Denton Hall, said firms should make every possible check when recruiting new employees to ensure they have no previous record of dismissal or conviction.

“There should be some checks and balances so that even if a member of staff did wish to be dishonest he would find it difficult,” he said.

These included checking referees thoroughly and making sure every period of a new recruit's life is accounted for, so that periods of imprisonment, suspension or unemployment were revealed.

Edward Swan, partner at McKenna & Co, described the legal dangers of trading in stocks and shares. “There are certain things that you can get caught up in when dealing in the markets.” These included becoming involved in insider dealing, market manipulation, and “corners” and “squeezes” – where a trader uses a limited supply of a security to inflate the price.

Another danger for innocent firms arose from becoming involved in trade associations, which meet to discuss market issues in a way which may lead to illegal pricing or supply agreements being made.

Guy Harvey, a partner at Pinsent Curtis, warned that firms should be honest and open if they had suffered fraud. “Much bank fraud remains undiscovered because the information stays within a very small group of people.”

Cyril Dixon