Slow fraud cases prove SFO’s ‘nightmare on Elm Street’

THE LEGAL profession is at loggerheads over how to cut the amount of time it takes to get major fraud and corruption cases into court.

The row erupted after the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) revealed that it was taking almost double the time to get its cases to court than three years ago.

The SFO’s annual report, published last week (17 July), says that on average a case takes almost five years to arrive at the Crown Court.

SFO director Robert Wardle admitted reforms were needed for his office to work more effectively.

“We’ve had real difficulties, with the growing size of cases, the amount of material involved, especially computer material, and with the time required to obtain evidence from overseas,” said Wardle.

Wardle is an advocate of using plea bargaining, whereby a deal can be made with potential defendants who give information about more serious fraudsters.

ndrew Gordon, head of investigations at PricewaterhouseCoopers, said that plea bargaining was the most obvious solution.

“When you’re looking at a £1m fraud, you’re looking at least at the equivalent of a warehouse full of paper. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” said Gordon. “By having a potential middlemanager point the finger to evidence in exchange for a lesser sentence means the investigation times can be dramatically reduced.”

Referring to the SFO’s headquarters on London’s Elm Street, Gordon added: “This has to be better than the current nightmare on Elm Street that the SFO faces, which leads to many cases having to be shelved due to lack of resources.”

One senior partner at a City law firm, however, said judges would not be willing to give up their sentencing powers to the SFO.

“Judges would be resistant even if they were involved with the sentencing deals before a trial commenced,” said the partner. “Judges want to keep court proceedings open and transparent, not taking place behind closed doors.”