SFO wins stay of execution

Top fraud defence solicitors welcome the preservation of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) as an independent entity and, in particular, the Government's call to enlarge its role in order to create a more unified way of dealing with such cases.

Attorney General Sir Nicholas Lyell, who put an end to 18 months of speculation about the body's future last week, called for the SFO to handle a wider range of cases. These will include some of the smaller cases often handled by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the CPS Fraud Investigation Group (FIG).

“Closer co-ordination” between the SFO and CPS and “a pooling of expertise…interchange of staff…and a common approach” to dealing with fraud were also called for.

Brian Spiro, white collar crime partner at West End firm Simons Muirhead & Burton says retaining the SFO was “a sensible decision. It will take time for any new prosecuting authority to settle its procedures and modus operandi. A totally new concept of a body with various disciplines under one roof will take longer than five years to bed down.”

Monty Raphael, joint senior partner at Peters & Peters, welcomes the Attorney General's calls for sharing expertise. Raphael believes, however, that the SFO should go further, by exchanging staff with the Inland Revenue, Department of Trade and Industry and Customs & Excise – all familiar with investigation and use of compulsion powers similar to the SFO's Section II powers.

“This would give much greater cross-fertilisation of experience,” says Raphael.

Bob Goldspink, a Denton Hall litigation partner, says: “I'm relieved. I had half-expected the SFO to be merged with FIG, and was worried that would lead to a diminution of their expertise.”

In pronouncing on the SFO's future, the Attorney General fully endorsed the findings of the recent Davie Committee report, chaired by former Cabinet Office civil servant Rex Davie.

“I should emphasise that, despite the often misguided criticism to which the prosecuting agencies have been subject, the SFO and the fraud divisions of the CPS have made real advances since they were set up in the 1980s,” said Sir Nicholas.

The Davie report emphasises that fraud covers a variety of actions, from highly sophisticated banking and commercial frauds, for example the BCCI collapse or the Guinness affair, to straightforward deception.

“This broad range requires an effective, proportionate, and flexible response,” Sir Nicholas told Parliament last week.

Davie advised that the existing structure should be maintained and that the role of the police in SFO cases should be clarified.

Apart from overturning the merger idea proposed in last year's Graham Report, Davie also makes subsidiary recommendations, all of which Sir Nicholas supported last week.

These begin with a revised set of criteria for determining whether cases should go to the SFO or CPS. These criteria, which will lead to a heavier caseload for the SFO and consequential enlargement, will be published.

The allocation of resources between the SFO and CPS will be kept under review. The SFO should continue with a flexible approach as to how its cases are handled. The role of the Joint Vetting Committee, set up following the Graham Report to consider allocation of cases that fall between the two agencies under their previous criteria, will be strengthened. The Association of Chief Police Officers will be fully represented on the committee when it discusses policy issues.

Finally, there will be better co-ordination between the SFO and CPS, to encourage a pooling of expertise, a common approach to policy issues, and improved arrangements for the interchange of staff. This will broaden their experience and provide for enhanced career development.

Sir Nicholas, in welcoming these recommendations, told Parliament they would “bring to an end what has been a period of uncertainty for both organisations and provide a sound blueprint for future improvements”.