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£20m retrieval should preserve SFO’s future, says lawyer

Agency 'here to stay' as the role of 'silent' NCA brought into question

26 July 2016

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The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) seized £19.6m in assets from criminals last year that may allay fears of political interference, its annual report has revealed.

An eventful year for the SFO saw asset recovery increase by 43 per cent on the £13.7m haul seen in 2014/15, while its first deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) was secured and a penalty of £16.8m imposed.

The agency remains in a state of flux, however, after the Financial Times reported of government plans to give rival National Crime Agency (NCA) a seat on the SFO board and 'power of direction' over its bribery investigations.

Barry Vitou, partner and head of global corporate crime at Pinsent Masons, said the latest figures had justified the SFO's role and the Treasury's investment in its operations.

In 2015/16, the SFO received £28m - a near 400 per cent rise on the £7.4m given in 2012/13 - which includes 'blockbuster' funding, allowing the agency to take on larger cases where the annual budget could be exceeded.

'This has been a strong year for the SFO and it looks like the agency is here to stay,' said Vitou. 'The appointment of former home secretary as prime minister has led to questions over its future - but the report should act as support for its continued existence - and organisational independence.'

The agency has been criticised over its varying conviction rates in recent years. Just six defendants in four cases were convicted in 2015/16 (year end March), leading to a conviction rate of just 32 per cent by defendant and 57 per cent by case.

The agency received a much needed boost when Southwark Crown Court handed down four convictions in the third Libor trial this month. In January, five defendants were acquitted in the second trial.

The SFO has defended its record and claimed statistics over a longer period give a better representation as the conviction rate. Between 2012 and 2016 the rate of convictions stood at 65 per cent by defendant and 81 per cent by case, with 75 defendants in 25 cases convicted.

While Vitou believes the SFO can go from strength to strength, he was less optimistic about the NCA's role and urged caution over possible integration between the agencies.

'The SFO seems to be building some momentum but the apparent silence from the NCA - a body supposedly leading the UK's fight against economic crime - has caused some question.'

'There are risks linked to major organisational change. The disruption and costs involved with the creation of a new body like this one can affect performance. This is why so many commentators would prefer the SFO to be left intact'

One of the NCA's top priorities will be to tackle the rise of cybercrime and fraud. Last week the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that two million computer misuse offences and 3.8m fraud offences occurred in the 12 months to the end of March.

As the threat of cybercrimes grows, foreign government requests to the UK for information relating to cybercrime investigations are at record levels, according to Thomson Reuters.

In 2015, the UK government received 1,652 requests, an increase of 44 per cent on the 1,141 requests in 2014, a freedom of information request has revealed.

According to Lloyds, the estimated cost of cyber-attacks to businesses is $400bn, while Juniper Insurance predicts this to increase to $2.1tn by 2019.

Morag Rea, head of the practical law, business crime, and investigations practice at Thomson Reuters, said global law enforcement agencies must work together' to combat cybercrime effectively, while urging law firms to be prepared for cyberattacks.

'Many law firms don't see themselves as a likely target for a cyberattack, but this is simply not true. Law firms need to make sure they have up to date IT security systems in place in order to protect themselves and their clients from an attack.'

Matthew Rogers is a legal reporter at Solicitors Journal @sportslawmattmatthew.rogers@solicitorsjournal.co.uk

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