Opinion: First conviction proves Bribery Act has sharp teeth

Munir Patel was a clerk at Redbridge Magistrates Court. Aged 22, he earned £17,000 per year, but evidently decided this was not enough.

He developed a scheme whereby he would offer people charged with driving offences a way out. In exchange for money he would advise his clients on how to avoid ­prosecution and alter records so that penalty points were not added to their licences.

Patel was caught when journalists from The Sun set up a sting, giving him £500 and secretly recording the transaction. Because some of his conduct occurred after 1 July he was charged with offences under the world-renowned Bribery Act, along with misconduct in a public office.

Having plead guilty Patel has the dubious distinction of being the first person with a Bribery Act conviction.

Some have criticised the fact that the first Bribery Act case is a relatively minor domestic one, rather than the more ­glamorous international corruption cases that have preoccupied lawyers, governments and NGOs in the past few years. They feel it somehow sends the wrong signal to multinational companies – ie that the Bribery Act is not relevant to them, or that the UK authorities are only interested in domestic cases.

These criticisms seem wrongheaded. The fact that the first case is a domestic one should hardly come as a surprise.

International corruption is the bailiwick of the SFO. Such cases take years to ­prepare. It would be perverse (and probably ­unconstitutional) for the CPS not to take advantage of the higher sentencing tariff under the Bribery Act just because it might steal the thunder of another case.

Moreover, the offence in this case was hardly minor. Patel ran a scheme involving at least 53 cases, from which he made tens of thousands of pounds.

Bigger Bribery Act cases are ­certainly out there and the SFO will not be shy of pursuing them when it is ready. In the meantime, last week Patel received a sentence rather heavier than a few penalty points. He got three years for the bribery charge (the maximum is 10) and six years for misconduct (the maximum is life).

The judge sent a message in sentencing, although it was aimed less at international corporations than UK public servants.

He said: “You created a danger not only to the integrity of the process, but also to public confidence in it. A justice system in which officials are prepared to take bribes in order to allow offenders to escape the proper consequences of their offending is inherently corrupt and is one which deserves no public respect and which will attract none.”

Although the conviction and sentence will be devastating to a young man of ­previous good character, the sentence seems light in the circumstances, even allowing for the discount for guilty pleas.

Nevertheless, this prosecution does a lot of good. It reminds us that bribery is not just something that happens ’over there’.

It shows that the Bribery Act imposes high and consistent standards and is not mere cultural imperialism. It strengthens the rule of law at the centre of the justice ­system. It may also, in a small way, ­highlight the benefits of good investigative journalism at a time when the reputation of the press is under severe attack.

Now, for Bribery Act fans who have read this far, an exam question: could the CPS prosecute a journalist who paid money to an official to set up a sting and expose criminality? I think the answer is probably no, but space prevents me giving reasons. I will divulge them (for free, I hasten to add) to anyone interested enough to get in touch, even a journalist.

Eoin O’Shea, head of anti-corruption group, LG