Nick Ephgrave QPM, was a surprise appointment to the position of Director of the SFO when he was announced as Lisa Osofsky's successor in July 2023. As the former Chief Constable of Surrey Police and Assistant Commissioner of London's Metropolitan Police Service, he is the first non-lawyer to hold the position so his appointment in September 2023 marks a significant shift in the leadership of the SFO. There has been much speculation about what we might expect from the SFO under Ephgrave's leadership, and we consider this question in light of what we've already seen below.
What to expect from Ephgrave
Ephgrave has forged a career in law enforcement; he has over 30 years of experience including various roles within the police. He has held several senior roles, including National Police Chiefs' Council lead for criminal justice, and most recently, Chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council Criminal Justice Co-ordination Committee. He has also held roles on the Criminal Procedure Rules Committee and at the Sentencing Council.
The role of SFO Director involves strategic direction, case decisions and organisational management, all of which Ephgrave has ample experience in and he will have legal support from general counsel and a large team of SFO lawyers and outside counsel.
Ahead of taking up the position, Ephgrave staked out a commitment to "building the strong, dynamic and pragmatic authority the UK needs to fight today’s most heinous economic crimes” and to continuing to work closely with the US Department of Justice. The SFO has also made it known that it will be looking closely at cases involving crypto assets and could start to make use of Unexplained Wealth Orders, which were introduced in the Criminal Finances Act 2017, but are yet to be deployed by the SFO. Ephgrave has already started to focus on change in the following areas.
Ephgrave has hit the ground running in his new post with a number of new investigations being announced since the start of his tenure. As well as ensuring some measure of continuity it is likely that Ephgrave is wanting to signal a new direction for the SFO.
As a high-ranking officer who worked within a police force that dealt with high volume investigations (that proceeded to prosecutions) Ephgrave has joined an agency whose investigations typically last for many years and which only conducts a handful of trials every year.
As has already been discussed elsewhere in this review there appears to be signs that the SFO might be focusing its attention on domestic fraud. With fraud now accounting for over 40% of crime in the UK, this pivot could provide Ephgrave and the SFO with an opportunity to increase the volume of investigations and prosecutions that it undertakes.
Domestic fraud (in many cases) would also not involve the international elements that have both prolonged and proved problematic for some of the SFO's previous international bribery and corruption cases.
Disclosure and operational issues
The SFO has come under heavy criticism for significant operational and disclosure failures, including in the Unaoil case which resulted in a judge criticising Osofsky's own conduct in contacting a US private investigator who had no recognised operational role in the case.
There was also particular scrutiny following the significant disclosure failures which led to the collapse of the fraud and false accounting Serco trial in April 2021, and the Unaoil bribery case in 2022. Independent reports into these failings were published by Brian Altman KC and Sir David Calvert-Smith respectively. These reports identified numerous operational problems including staff inexperience, unjustified resourcing and time pressures and inadequate technology and training. The recommendations in these reports will be a starting point for Ephgrave to begin work.
Perhaps in response to the criticisms of staff resourcing and experience in these reports, one of Ephgrave's first acts as SFO Director was to increase the number of permanent staff by up to a third, and he has set out to recruit 100 - 150 investigators and case workers, to take the number of full-time staff to 600. Currently, 20-25% of the agency's permanent positions are empty or filled by temporary workers. The SFO is also set to move its headquarters from central London to Canary Wharf in 2024. An increased headcount, combined with Ephgrave's experience managing large teams and complex operations could translate into a focus on improved operational efficiency within the SFO.
Faster investigations and more prosecutions
The financial year ending in 2023 was heralded by then-SFO director, Lisa Osofsky, as "the year of the trial" in her 2022-23 Business Plan. Indeed, eight trials were due to be brought to court over that period, which was a marked increase on previous years. Looking ahead, the SFO has only two trials listed for 2024, and trials are currently being listed as far in the future as 2026.
The SFO has come under criticism for the length of time it has taken to bring cases to trial. Although part of the reason for these delays is the court backlog which has affected all levels of the criminal justice system, another part of the problem is the investigation time taken by the SFO before charges are brought. The case against Ethical Forestry Limited, currently listed for 2026, was first investigated in 2016 and charges were only brought in 2023 after a seven-year investigation and the SFO's investigation into Kazakh mining company ENRC was dropped in August 2023 with no charges brought after a ten-year investigation.
In its strategic plan for 2022-2025, the SFO set itself the target of shortening the average length of investigations to three years, and promised to accelerate the progress of cases into 2023 by injecting "pace at key stages of [its] intelligence assessment, investigations and prosecutions". It is not clear whether this will come at a cost of taking on a narrower caseload.
In the first interview given by the new Director, he vowed to carry through this mission, citing the action taken in relation to the Axiom Ince investigation. Mr Ephgrave said "we accepted the investigation on September 5 and a few weeks later we’re going through doors, gathering evidence and making arrests, and that’s the kind of approach I’m encouraging here" and described the operation as having "gone from flash to bang quite quickly". If this effort continues, we may expect the court calendar to fill up in the coming years and given Ephgrave's background in the police force, we may see increased collaboration between the SFO and other law enforcement agencies, which could lead to more efficient investigations and prosecutions of serious fraud cases.
The creation of an easier route to corporate criminal liability and the introduction a new failure to prevent fraud offence has given the SFO greater scope to pursue corporates that it suspects of wrongdoing. If the first few months of Ephgrave's tenure are a sign of what is to come, 2024 promises to be a very busy year for the agency.
Currently, the SFO has the following cases listed for trial:
- Axiom Legal Financing Fund
Following an investigation which started in 2014, on 21 August 2020, the SFO charged three men with multiple offences in connection with its investigation into the collapse of the Axiom Legal Financing Fund. The charges relate to carrying out a fraudulent scheme to divert money from the Axiom Legal Financing Fund for their own benefit. A trial was held in 2022 and one of the individuals was found guilty on three counts of fraudulent trading, another individual was acquitted, and the jury was unable to reach a verdict in relation to one individual, and a re-trial date was set for 18 March 2024.
On the 17 December 2018, the SFO, in collaboration with the Dutch authorities, opened an investigation into aspects of biodiesel trading at Greenergy and various third parties connected with the sustainable fuel sector. On 8 December 2020, a biodiesel trader and former employee at Greenergy was charged with two counts of fraud by abuse of position and one count of money laundering. Greenergy and its current employees are no longer suspects in the investigation. Having initially been postponed until October 2023, the trial is now expected to commence in April 2024.
- London Mining Plc
A trial date of January 2025 was set for two former employees of London Mining Plc and a third party. In 2016, the SFO opened an investigation into allegations of bribery and corruption in Sierra Leone and brought charges in 2023 for conspiracy to make corrupt payments.
- Ethical Forestry Limited
After opening an investigation in December 2016, this case has been listed for trial in early 2026. The case relates to an alleged fraudulent investment scheme marketed by Ethical Forestry Limited and associated companies between 2007 and 2015. On 26 July 2023, three former directors of the company appeared at Southwark Crown Court and were each charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation and one count of fraudulent trading.
Patisserie Valerie PLC
The fraud trial of four individuals, including a former director, linked to the collapsed bakery chain Patisserie Valerie is listed for Spring 2026. The investigation was initially opened in October 2018 when the fraud was first uncovered but charges were not brought until almost five years later, in September 2023.