Neil Williams of business crime solicitors Rahman Ravelli considers the agency’s reaction to criticism of its working methods.
The UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has announced the action it may take in response to a detailed assessment of its leadership and case management. Hiring of paralegals to help review documents – and minimise the use of outside consultants - is one of the measures proposed by the SFO, following reports on its effectiveness by HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI). HMCPSI was given the task of conducting independent analysis of how the SFO works.
One HMCPSI report, released last July, said the SFO’s sharp focus on delivery of case work had led to a culture where neglectful approaches to management were tolerated. Another HMCPSI report, published last September, examined criticisms that SFO cases are often slow to progress; with some having been ongoing for more than seven years. Since arriving at the SFO as Director in 2018, Lisa Osofsky has closed a number of long-running investigations; including those into GlaxoSmithKline and individuals at Rolls-Royce.
The HMCPSI had highlighted the complexity and large amounts of evidence in SFO cases but said that the agency struggled to staff cases appropriately and process digital materials. It recommended that the SFO assess its available resources and devise new staffing models.
The SFO has said it accepts most of the HMCPSI recommendations. This indicates a general acceptance by it that changes need to be made in order to progress cases; with a particular focus on the support that should be provided to staff to help achieve their investigation goals. It is a surprise, however, that the SFO response only partly accepts the recommendations regarding case allocation; where cases are not being taken forward promptly after allocation. This is arguably a key issue to be addressed.
The SFO’s digital forensic unit, which has been described as being behind in its processing of material, also needs swift attention. The SFO’s wide-ranging search and seizure powers have perhaps been used abundantly, without consideration of the resources needed to process every item taken. A new digital strategy for each case would lead to a more streamlined approach to seizure powers, and so ease the burden further down the line.