Questions over future of SFO

£1.3m Tchenguiz legal costs add to SFO’s woes

Freedom of Information figures show the SFO has spent around £1.3m in external legal costs over four years during its investigation of the Tchenguiz brothers and the judicial review into its mistakes.

That figure, including £417,000 on counsel such as Blackstone’s James Eadie QC and QEB Hollis Whiteman’s Mark Ellison QC, may not seem exceptional when the average cost of a probe in 2010-11 was £910,000. But that does not include staff costs since 2008, while the £729,000 to ‘other contractors’ is as opaque as it sounds.

Add the £3m costs order to cover the business tycoons’ representation – including Debevoise’s Peter Goldsmith QC and former DPP Ken Macdonald QC – and the price quickly snowballs.

The problem the SFO faces is matching the spending power of wealthy defendants who can afford top legal advice. The regulator has a dwindling budget – down to £36m for 2010-11 from £51m in 2008-09 and predicted to fall to £29m by 2014-15. So it has to work within finite limits, although new director David Green has insisted he will not overlook an investigation on the basis of cost.

The SFO would argue that, despite the complexity of its cases, seven out of 10 prosecutions end in conviction and scrutiny of costs only comes up when it loses or an inquiry is discontinued.

But the monetary outlay on the Tchenguiz case strikes at the heart of the SFO because its biggest investigation in a decade was characterised by basic errors – and that raises questions about the future of the embattled agency.

Sam Chadderton