Do the eyes have it?

According to Peter Heims of the Association of British Investigators (ABI), private eyes have a lot to thank lawyers for. He explains: “A private investigator is often the very last person a client would think of coming to. I think it is fair to say that about 90 per cent of our work comes via solicitors' firms.”

Private eyes have always lived a precarious existence and, as elsewhere, there are pressures on the industry to adapt. Cost-conscious law firms are trying to keep as much work in-house as possible. Says Anthony Burton, of Simons Muirhead & Burton: “There is a tendency now for law firms to be doing more and more of their own legwork. They like to be able to keep control over more sensitive areas. But there will always be certain jobs, such as money tracing, where outside people do a good job.”

The ABI once tried to introduce a standard set of charges for its members, but they proved impossible to enforce. However, the average hourly rate outside London is about u25 plus expenses for standard work such as process-serving and tracing and nearer u35 in the capital. For Heims, this is good value for money.

Others feel that the relatively easy money to be made on legal aid cases has not focused investigators as much as it might have. Explains John Harding, a partner at Kingsley Napley: “There is always a danger, once you have gained legal aid authorisation to spend u1,000 on a private investigator, that they go away and use the money up without achieving much. Then they come back and ask for more without anything to show for it.”

Many lawyers would also like their 'in loco' agents to have a better knowledge of the law. Says one senior partner: “We sometimes find our investigators get things wrong because they lack a sufficiently detailed knowledge of the legal process. We asked one outfit to serve a statutory demand, only to discover that they had served it in an inadmissible manner.”

Lawyers can tell many stories about how firms have employed investigators only to find they have obtained their information illegally.

The danger does not lie where investigators flout the law, but where they operate without due regard for the sensibilities of their client.

For example, Stephen Gilchrist of West End-based white collar crime specialists Gilchrists, acted as defence lawyer (rather than client) for an investigator who had been charged with obtaining services by deception, since he had allegedly obtained information from the police national computer by posing as a police officer. The case against the investigator collapsed because no payment was made for the information, so it did not count as a service. But the whole affair left a nasty taste in the mouth for the lawyers who had retained him.

Given that choosing the wrong private investigator could potentially damage the reputation of a firm, most are unworried about picking a bad apple. Word of mouth is a vital calling card in this business. “Private investigators are a bit like counsel – you use the ones you know,” says Gilchrist.

For some, instinct is the best guide. Says Kingsley Napley's Harding: “Choosing a private investigator is about gut feeling as much as anything else.”

Burton longs for the day he discovers a Hollywood-style private 'tec: “I would welcome a private investigator with the resourcefulness and range of skills that they used to have on the silver screen, but they don't seem to make them like that in real life.”

While private detective work may have a reputation for sleaze and Walter Mitty-type self-delusion at its further reaches, it is an industry which should be good at self-policing. As one investigator explains: “If somebody doesn't deliver, or errs too much on the wrong side of the law, word spreads. It is such an incestuous industry.”

There are two respected industry bodies. The ABI just represents private investigators, whereas the Institute of Professional Investigators (IPI) is open to investigators of all descriptions – be they police, army, civil aviation specialists, or even journalists. However, until such time as there is a statutory body regulated by Parliament, there will always be well-established and reputable firms that feel membership is unnecessary.

Says Sam Narula, managing director of Risk International, a firm that lectures on investigative techniques to the Metropolitan Police: “I am afraid we have ignored the existence of the industry associations. They may well be sensible and effective bodies, but the simple fact is we would rather regulate ourselves than pay their fees.”

Says another: “At the end of the day, we are regulated by our clients more effectively than any association can do.”

Which is a good point. What exactly can the ABI do to discipline errant members, given its lack of statutory muscle?

For a start, membership of the ABI is not open to all-comers. Applicants have to sit a written and oral exam. It checks for County Court judgments and that the firm has been in business for two years. But if they still turn out to be a bad seed, all the association can do is withdraw membership.

Some lawyers take membership of the ABI into account when vetting investigators – others don't. Says one crime specialist: “The idea of statutory regulation doesn't keep me awake at night, but it would certainly be helpful if there were more consistent standards and if investigators were required to achieve a certain level of legal knowledge.”

One of the problems with regulation is that the description 'private investigator' covers a multitude of sins. There is a world of difference between the Bradford-based process-server and the City-based international fraud specialist.

White collar crime may not necessarily be on the increase, but it is certainly more conspicuous. Firms are less willing to cover the crime up. Now that corporate investigation is big business, it is not just private investigators who are snooping. Lawyers, accountants, even management consultants, have been getting in on the act.

With so many modus operandi to choose from, clients should be clear about the sort of service expected. In a fraud investigation an accountant might notice a seemingly innocuous inter-company transfer that an investigator would miss.

Some enterprising firms are springing up where all the specialisations are under one roof.

Sevenoaks-based Risk International was set up last year by managing director Sam Narula, a forensic accountant on New Scotland Yard's fraud panel, in partnership with lawyers and ex-police detectives. “Senior officers,” explains Narula, “are good for contacts and the thinking parts, but junior officers are the ones with the most recent hands-on experience. A lot of people don't realise that a superintendent may not have worked on a case for 12 years.”

Narula believes that those who hire private investigators could be more discriminating: “The problem is, a lot of people just say: 'Can you do this? If so, how much? OK, go and do it.' We give a presentation to the client so they know what we are about and whether we are suitable or not. We give them a chance to talk to the people who will be conducting the case. Sometimes they think they need us, but they don't really. Turning work away always hurts, but it's better than a dissatisfied client.”

Guy Fitzmaurice is a freelance journalist.