Bambos Tsiattalou, founder and Partner at Stokoe Partnership Solicitors, writes for The Times Law Brief and discusses the problem with ‘blockbuster’ funding for the SFO.

This article has been published in The Times Law Brief, May 24th 2016.

The problem with ‘blockbuster’ funding for fraud fighters

Blockbuster is the dramatic word the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) uses to describe additional funding required from the government for major investigations on top of its annual £33 million budget.

Blockbuster suggests that the government views the SFO as the go-to agency for big cases demanding big results. Expectations are therefore high that success is achieved in its major investigations through convictions at trial.

Over the last three years, the SFO’s blockbuster funding has increased dramatically. In 2012-13, it was £7.4m. This swelled to £24m and £24.5m respectively in the next two years and is scheduled to top £28m in 2015-16 – a figure that almost matches the entire SFO budget.

While the work the agency undertakes is under great public scrutiny, the very fact that it acquires half its overall spending for so-called blockbuster cases begs the question: has blockbuster funding been a huge success?

Mandated to combat the highest level of serious fraud, bribery and corruption, the SFO regularly handles investigations that explode into the public domain. This piles on the pressure, requiring enormous resources at short notice.

If the SFO consistently managed to achieve convictions like that of Libor-fixer Tom Hayes, sentenced last August to 14 years (reduced to 11 on appeal), there would be few complaints. Regrettably, it does not. Multiple failures are plain to see, especially this year.

In January, six other Libor traders were acquitted, marring the Hayes success. The Forex inquiry was then abandoned in March; after spending two years reviewing half a million documents, the SFO found “insufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction”.

Insufficient evidence for a scandal that, in the US, resulted in multibillion-dollar fines for multiple banks. Whether or not this decision was reached as a result of the failed Libor prosecutions is a matter of speculation, but an agency seemingly afraid to bring cases to trial is no deterrent for white-collar criminals.

These outcomes magnify the SFO’s shortcomings, and further damage its reputation. Meanwhile, a less high-profile SFO investigation that made it to trial has also recently collapsed: two men accused of a $120m boiler room scam. Following a nine-year investigation and a nine-week trial, the jury found the pair not guilty after less than four hours’ deliberation.

This failure may indicate that the focus on investigations in the public eye is also detrimental to less visible cases.

Three failures in rapid succession magnify public scrutiny of the SFO. Against this background, of note is the decision of Theresa May, the home secretary, to reconsider plans to absorb the SFO into the National Crime Agency.

The SFO’s unique independence from ministerial oversight is no longer sustainable given the consistent failures to live up to its blockbuster reputation. Incorporation within an agency that does not have a tarnished image would hopefully allow the SFO to focus more on investigations that it undertakes rather than on the public perception of how it operates.