Fraud after Roskill: a view from the Serious Fraud Office

Date01 January 2004
Published date01 January 2004
AuthorRosalind Wright
Journal of Financial Crime Ð Vol. 11 No. 1
Fraud after Roskill: A View from the Serious
Fraud Oce
Rosalind Wright
Lord Roskill's Committee's Report on Fraud Trials
was published in 1985. It made 112 recommen-
dations, of which all but two were implemented: a
rare success for a committee of this kind and a
tribute to the report's practical and far-sighted
The Serious Fraud Oce (SFO), which the author
has headed for six years since 1997, is the embodiment
of the uni®ed fraud investigation and prosecution
organisation, the central vision of the report. It has
been a signal success. In the 15 years of its existence,
it has investigated over 1,000 allegations of major
and complex fraud and has prosecuted hundreds of
defendants. Overall the picture is an encouraging one.
Why then has it had such a bad press and why is it
still seen as a legitimate target for snipers, whether in
Parliament or at cocktail parties? There is certainly
justi®cation for criticism of the tools that are
given to the Oce to per form its truly Sisyphean
task: the resources devoted to fraud investigation are
inadequate; the legislation lacks a substantive
oence of `fraud'; the rules on evidence and disclosure
were not devised for cases where a million pages
of documentary evidence are regarded as modest;
computer-generated evidence is ubiquitous and mea-
sured in terabytes (1,000 gigabytes); and the jury to
try these cases still consists, as it has for centuries
when fraud cases were simpler and much shorter, of
12 citizens selected at random and weeded out if
they have a legitimate reason to excuse them from
sitting for trials lasting up to a year.
The problem that the SFO has to face is with the
nature of the cases it tackles. They are, by their
nature, high pro®le, often involving well-known
household names in terms of companies, colourful
city and business ®gures, and enormous amounts of
money. In cases such as these, there has often been
considerable press interest, whipping up a climate
of expectation and excitement that a big fraud has
been uncovered, a prominent entrepreneur has
fallen from grace and that the consequent conviction
of the guilty and compensation for the victims are a
matter of course. Because the SFO operates in the
spotlight, the beam falls on the unsuccessful as well
as the victories. Indeed it shines with blinding bright-
ness on the ones that get away. How shocking it is,
the journalists comment, that people who are
clearly guilty (though, of course, the press cannot
say this in so many words, for fear of action for
defamation, but the hints are only too apparent)
have `got o', clearly because of the incompetence
of the prosecution and investigation team.
There may be very few such prominent cases, but
those where the jury acquits are the ones that the press
and the public and Parliament remember. It was Roy
Amlot QC who noted that there is a peculiar quality
about famous people who are charged with oences:
in many cases, their very fame has a mesmerising
eect on jurors, who are then reluctant to convict
them, especially of oences which have a relatively
low emotive quality about them, such as fraud,
corruption or tax evasion.
The point, of course, about a system of adversarial
criminal justice, where the onus falls upon the prose-
cution to prove its case to a standard where the tribu-
nal must be satis®ed so that it is sure that the oence
has been proved, is that one would expect there to be
a number of cases where, having heard both sides and
listened to the witnesses and the defendant giving
evidence, the tribunal is not so completely satis®ed
of the guilt of the defendant. If juries returned
guilty verdicts in all cases brought by the SFO or
any other prosecuting body, there would be justi®ed
criticism that too many cases where there was the
slightest doubt were being rejected before they
reached trial, or, worse, as is not unheard of in juris-
dictions other than our own, that the investigators
insisted on a full confession extracted from the
defendants before bringing a charge.
As it is, the SFO, in common with all other prose-
cuting authorities in England and Wales, must satisfy
the conditions laid down in the Code for Crown
Prosecutors before a case is brought to trial: that is,
that there must be sucient evidence to support the
charge or charges; the prosecution must be justi®ed
in the public interest; and that there must be a realistic
prospect of a conviction, having regard to all the
circumstances, including the likely defence.
Page 10
Journal of Financial Crime
Vol.11, No. 1, 2003, pp. 10 ±16
#HenryStewart Publications
ISSN 1359-0790

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