Partner Bambos Tsiattalou argues that the push for increased manpower at the Serious Fraud Office must translate into effective prosecutions.

Bambos’ article was published in The Times, 4 January 2024, and can be found here.

Appointed as Director of The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) last September, Nick Ephgrave draws on 30 years’ law enforcement experience, including a four-year stint as Assistant Commissioner of the Met. The first non-lawyer to occupy the Director’s chair, he faces a Herculean task in restoring the SFO’s battered reputation.

Regrettably, the agency’s performance in recent years has been ignominious. Prosecutions of high-profile defendants, such as G4S and Serco, have been abandoned. Trials collapsed and verdicts, such as three Unaoil defendants, were overturned, because of the SFO’s self-inflicted errors – not least, a sustained inability to deal with disclosure rules. Last autumn, long-running and costly investigations into miners Rio Tinto and Kazakh-based Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation (ENRC) were finally dropped.

In response, Ephgrave’s “top priority” is to hire 150 new employees – prosecutors, analysts, and accountants – with the aim of increasing the SFO’s permanent headcount by up to a third. The ostensible purpose of this hiring spree is to decrease its historic over-reliance on temporary staff and put crucial personnel into prosecutions.

Since the recruitment drive began, the agency has made 100 job offers in record time. Ephgrave’s hope is that higher staff numbers will enable the volume of SFO investigations to return to previous levels. Under his immediate predecessor, Lisa Osofsky, the number of cases pursued by SFO investigators fell by half during her five-year tenure.

Manifestly, the current push for greater manpower must achieve results. If not, more questions will surely be asked about the SFO’s credibility and its ability to effectively tackle complex and serious financial crime, especially given the catalogue of prosecutorial failures.

The list of current investigations, 24 in total, includes high-profile names, such as Amec Foster Wheeler, and Glencore. In recent months, there have also been signs of greater activity, with the SFO having brought charges against four individuals in connection with the collapsed café chain Patisserie Valerie, after it was found that they had concealed £10 million in debts from investors and creditors.

According to media reports, Ephgrave wants to do more cases and he wants to do them fast.
It would therefore be reasonable to expect the number of investigations, and ultimately prosecutions, to rise in line with the sharp hike in permanent staff numbers. Although this impetus is both welcome and warranted, the jury is still out on results.

Given the spectacular and significant failures under Osofsky’s leadership, it is uncertain whether the push for more manpower will automatically translate into faster, effective prosecutions. Much more certain is that the SFO desperately needs some high-profile successes. Otherwise, doubts will swiftly resurface as to the agency’s ability to tackle complex, high-profile financial crime and deliver results.

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