Seventh heaven

Seven Bedford Row head David Farrer QC’s foray into offshore work could spark a change at the set

60-year-old David Farrer QC, who has spent most of his years in front of juries in old-fashioned courtrooms, could be a figurehead for the modern bar. If barristers had a magazine of bar trends, then Farrer, who heads up criminal and civil set Seven Bedford Row, would be a sure bet for the front cover.

He has just set up an alliance with the Jersey-based BakerPlatt Group, which comprises law firm Baker Associates and consultancy firm Finance Sector Compliance Advisers. BakerPlatt specialises in providing regulatory advice to governments and companies, particularly those where compliance may be below the international standards laid down by such bodies as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF), the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) and the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

For several reasons, the tie-up has given Farrer and Seven Bedford Row more access to this work than most, if not all, criminal and civil chambers. The associated entity is a combined effort by barristers, solicitors and regulatory experts in a one-stop shop. It is a large outfit focused on marketing itself on several continents, and all criminal barristers, including juniors, are available for such work, whereas in rival sets only the odd (usually senior) barrister does such work. The work itself is well paid and requires fewer overheads than running a fraud case.

Farrer, though clearly an innovative thinker, toes the party line on corporate matters relating to the BakerPlatt alliance. This may be thanks largely to his set’s chief executive, Robert Graham-Campbell, who joined in July 2001 from merchant bank Flemings.

Farrer says that Graham-Campbell’s predecessor Chris Owen (who currently headhunts barristers) did a terrific job, but that the new man has introduced an “avalanche” of new ideas from his merchant bank background. “We’d already made a start into the Serious Fraud Office, fraud and regulatory work before Robert’s arrival. Robert’s accelerated that process,” he claims.

The bar is notorious for its old-fashioned marketing techniques, such as seminars and the odd cocktail party. It was only allowed to advertise 13 years ago. This scheme is very modern in comparison. Graham-Campbell has introduced Farrer to up-to-date marketing concepts such as unity of purpose and good branding sense. He is also careful not to criticise the regimes that are currently or likely to instruct him on the back of the association.

Take his opinions on fraud in Jersey. Most days there are newspaper articles on some scam involving hidden assets in a trust account on the island. However, Farrer disagrees that fraud is particularly omnipresent in Jersey. “A lot of commercial arrangements [associated with the frauds] date back to before we were as concerned with compliance as we are now. It takes time to discover who those people operating in the twilight world of crime really are,” he argues.

On Switzerland, well known for its banking secrecy laws, Farrer diplomatically says: “It has a far greater degree of transparency than it did in the past. It’s always going to be a difficult battle for financial authorities to achieve complete transparency. One may operate vigorous regimes, but the determined money launderer has a considerable amount of ammunition in his pouches.” This argument seems less the opinion of the objective thinker and more the thoughts of someone concerned about not offending his clients.

Farrer appears to find his job as chambers’ head irksome. He groans when I express surprise at the fact that he is overseeing the changearound of rooms at the chambers. He seems to feel it would be rude to complain. On a personal level, he is very much the smiling, modest gent with a love of theatre. He also appears compassionate in legal matters (he believes his most important case was prosecuting a lorry driver found guilty of raping and murdering a French girl. He translated the case daily for the victim’s parents).

He has a reforming passion. He feels that the Proceeds of Crime Act, which was introduced last year, should be rethought.

Farrer is also very ambitious. He admits that Seven Bedford Row’s alliance needs to be “more aggressive” in the manner it approaches new work. “We intend spreading the alliance to other jurisdictions, specifically Switzerland and the Caribbean,” he says.

Developing this line of work may mean reforming his set, which is currently comprised of criminal and civil practitioners. “The bar is becoming more pigeonholed into specialist areas,” he explains. “There’s a tension if you try to work in too many different areas.” The area in which Seven Bedford Row has been increasingly specialising is white collar fraud, hence the association with BakerPlatt.

Perhaps this means getting rid of the civil side of Seven Bedford Row? Farrer says this may be something he will be thinking about, but for the present he sees advantages in maintaining a larger practice. “You can cross-sell between crime and civil work,” he argues. “A criminal contact can find a problem in an employment area, so we can sell our employment group to him.” But either way, there’s an obvious tension here and the fallout may mean axing the set’s civil members.

If this happened, Seven Bedford Row would stand out as the London chambers for offshore regulatory and criminal work, helping companies on the wrong end of a suspicious transaction report (the so-called STRs made by the financial community on customers they suspect are involved in fraud), or bodies seeking to come into line with international standards on tackling business crime.

Farrer is very secretive about his cases, but that goes with the territory. He is currently representing the US government in its efforts to have an order made by a US court for the payment of $200m (£117.5m) to be enforced in the Isle of Man. The funds are locked in a trust account on the island. This is lucrative but bread-and-butter work on the hard end of fraud court work. Companies and governments naturally turn to barristers who handle such work daily to sort out their own compliance problems.

However, the competition is intense, as many barristers (even if professional negligence or environment work is their main practice) want to be involved in this area. Farrer may have got ahead of the game, but he will only stay there if he can focus all his guns on expanding the alliance. Seven Bedford Row has five silks and 15 juniors doing offshore work, mainly on the criminal side, which is proportionally higher than most other sets.

Farrer’s experience of offshore work has taught him the myriad of problems jurisdictions such as the Caribbean and the Channel Islands face in tackling fraud. He says one problem is the unmanageable caseload facing investigators. A single STR against one businessman in relation to one transaction means all his transactions thereon, whether it is paying his solicitor’s bill or purchasing some groceries, have to be reported to the fraud police. Another huge difficulty is that fraud police have only seven days to disclose evidence after stopping a transaction based on an STR. This is unmanageable considering the volume of STRs, the shortage of investigating officers and large case burdens. The root of these problems is English legislation that has been applied offshore, Farrer says. Managing and sorting out messes such as these could keep Farrer busy for years to come.

Seven Bedford Row lacks the array of well-known top talent that other criminal sets boast. Nor has Farrer, while respected, the profile of the likes of William Clegg QC and Roy Amlot QC. His best-known case has been prosecuting the timeshare fraudster John Palmer. But tapping into offshore investigations as a growth area of work and consolidating it through the alliance is a canny move. Although the secretive, cloak-and-dagger world he is aiming to inhabit is unlikely to do much for Farrer’s recognition factor.
David Farrer QC