Stepping into the foyer of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), you can’t help but feel sorry for those working there. It’s not exactly the sort of welcome that law firms would give their clients – drab, dated and dark.
It must be quite galling working for the state with its requisite budgetary constraints and having the millions that you could make if you turned a blind eye to the law shoved down your throat every day. The press officer who shows me out and bemoans the fact that she can’t afford to buy a house in a city where the average house price is 25 times the average wage, must occasionally ponder on the injustice of it all.
Fraud cost the country an estimated £13.8bn last year, and even the director of the Serious Fraud Office, Rosalind Wright, is not immune. She recently had her debit card cloned and only knew about it when the bank rang to ask whether she had been at the other end of the country the day before, going from shop to shop asking for cashback.
“So check your statements carefully,” she warns me, and for the first time in my life I have a strong desire to do just that immediately.
Wright is really different to how I had imagined her. In my TV-addled mind, I had her down as a mixture between Prime Suspect’s DCI Tennison and Anne Robinson – sort of hard and spiky. But Wright has got distinctly soft edges and strikes me as the sort of person who has got to where she is not by being tougher than the rest but by being organised and efficient. Throughout the interview she refers to notes she has previously made and which now cover her desk, presumably so she doesn’t have to kick herself afterwards for forgetting to mention something.
Perhaps it’s a symptom of an overcrowded life in which she is not only director of the SFO, but also plays a very active part in the Bar Council, where she has just become head of the employed bar committee.
Staff at the SFO are currently dealing with 88 cases, four of which are currently in the courts. We talk on the very day that the Wickes fraud trial starts, concerning charges of fiddling the books against five senior executives of the DIY chain.
At the same time, in another court, the CWS case rumbles on, in which the former chief executive of Hobsons Foods, Andrew Regan, stands accused of stealing money from his company to use as bribes to try and secure a contract from the Co-op. Rather sordidly, Paul Thomas, a former Alsop Wilkinson lawyer, is also in the dock, charged with aiding and abetting.
Of the other two cases, one involves a Norwegian stockbroker accused of acting with a Morgan Grenfell investment fund manager to siphon off £250m of the latter’s money, and lastly an advance fees fraud involving a West African operation.
Last year the SFO brought a record 24 cases to trial, whereas previously it had averaged 14 a year. “It just so happened that we had a period when everything was ready at one time,” shrugs Wright. “It can take up to two years to actually get to trial.”
Rather depressingly, the number of cases on the SFO’s books are merely the ones it has the staff to deal with and Wright believes that there is more fraud around than ever before – and we have only ourselves to blame, apparently.
Wright looks exasperated at Joe Public, who is still not seeming to understand that if he is asked to pay a fee upfront for finance then there is a very good chance he will not see it again. She tells the story, which is obviously a favourite judging by the smile from the press officer, of a bunch of German crooks who set up a bank in a building once used by HSBC in Torquay, offering “investments” to exclusively German and Austrian clients in return for a percentage upfront.
The case also threw up an interesting dilemma for the SFO – with no dedicated police force, Wright has to rely on being able to convince police authorities to dedicate officers to her fight against fraud. “In the Torquay case, the Devon and Cornwall police were marvellous and the chief constable resourced it with around 40 officers, but there was not a victim in Devon or Cornwall. There are a lot of conflicting police priorities as far as both the police and the public are concerned.”
Wright recently submitted a final report to the Attorney General on the proposal of having a full-time dedicated national fraud squad. But she does not seem to hold out much hope that the political powers that be will grant her wish.
So does Wright believe that solicitors are beginning to get the message about reporting fraud? Wright is optimistic, partly because of a talk she did at a law school in which she talked about the duty to report money laundering. She says that the students were able to quote the regulations back at her.
But she believes there is no room for complacency. “Sometimes solicitors become mesmerised by clients they’ve know for a long time who ask them to hold money in their client account. Because they trust them they don’t ask the questions they should, and so facilitate an obvious way of money laundering,” she says.
While solicitors would be wary of clients coming in off the street, Wright says that the old client poses the risk of getting involved in something suspect. As for the amount of regulation now guarding against money laundering, she believes that the balance is just about right. Since the Financial Services Authority was given responsibility for actively policing the area, the gap has closed between the Serious Fraud Office, the Bank of England and the Securities and Futures Authority, none of which wanted the job.
I ask her what she thinks about the recent European money laundering directive, in which lawyers have won the concession of being able to tell clients that they are going to report them to the authorities. She shrugs and says that she is more concerned about the speed at which a European criminal legal system is being formed under the premise of cutting down on international crime. “Never mind the euro,” she says. “We’re moving even quicker into a federal Europe [in criminal law] and it will be done before anyone notices.” She says that in the process, the UK legal system stands to lose out in the face of the Continental inquisitorial regime.
She believes that the increasing cooperation between systems is working well without the need to bring in one law supported by the Corpus Euro. Given the fuss that the tabloids created over plane spotters, it is surprising that it has not yet created a rumpus about this issue.
And as if all this was not enough to contend with, Wright now aims to improve cooperation and mutual recognition between the employed and self-employed bar. She left the self-employed bar five years after being called to join the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). Her reason is all too familiar – she had a young family and when her baby was only three weeks old, a kind clerk gave her a three-week case in Chester. For her second baby, born while she was at the DPP, she had seven months maternity leave, unheard of at the bar.
Her move away from the self-employed bar was met with utter bewilderment, but now she says that the links are becoming much closer and many chambers positively encourage pupils to spend some of their training in-house.
Before I leave, I ask Wright whether spending nearly five years at the SFO has made her more cautious when it comes to avoiding fraud. She smiles and says that she doesn’t think so, but that when she was in her old job at the Securities and Futures Authority, everyone kept their spare cash in the building society – no one traded in shares after what they had seen.
Serious Fraud Office (SFO)