SFO Reprieve

Posted on 28 June 2017 by Min Weaving

SFO Reprieve

The SFO was given a reprieve last week when the Prime Minister's controversial proposal to incorporate the SFO into the NCA was noticeably absent from the Queen's Speech. Whilst the Government has since made clear that specific proposals that were not mentioned are still being considered, the Queen's Speech covers a two year period which means the SFO is safe for now.

The lost majority means that Theresa May has limited her focus to key bills to ensure they are passed and given the unprecedented criticism the proposal had received it is not too surprising that it was shelved. Before the election, the Conservatives had said that incorporating the SFO into the NCA would "improve intelligence sharing and bolster the investigation of serious fraud, money laundering and financial crime". However, the proposal seemed to be at odds with the Conservatives' overall pledge to tackle global corruption. Global corruption undoubtedly requires the specialist knowledge and experience that the SFO has developed since its creation almost 30 years ago - something which would quickly be diluted if it were amalgamated into a larger organisation with a much wider remit that has little overlap with the SFO's.

The SFO's future is most frequently debated in parallel with its results, rather that its charging decisions. Many were surprised that the proposal appeared in the May Manifesto; it followed the announcements earlier in the year that the SFO had secured significant Deferred Prosecution Agreements with Rolls Royce PLC and Tesco PLC. In contrast, the SFO's successful prosecution of Tom Hayes for LIBOR manipulation in 2014 has been overshadowed by the subsequent acquittal of six individuals for the same crime across three trials.

The NCA is not without criticism; in 2015 Mr Justice Hickinbottom deemed the NCA “incompetent” and “systematically flawed” after officers unlawfully used search warrants. These comments came just months after a jury was discharged in a multi-million pound fraud trial in which a Judge had determined that problems within the NCA's case were "beyond negligent". It would be short-sighted to determine the SFO's fate on the idea that the NCA would be better equipped to handle complex fraud cases.

The threat of abolition has long hung over the SFO, and although the current political climate means it is unlikely to come to fruition in the near future, the threat is equally unlikely to be rescinded any time soon. David Green CB QC's tenure will come to an end next year and his replacement's appointment might shed light on what the future holds.