- FCPA Professor - https://fcpaprofessor.com -

UK Bribery Act – Year One

Today’s post is from Robert Amaee (former Head of Anti-Corruption and Head of Proceeds of Crime at the UK Serious Fraud Office and currently of counsel at Covington & Burling – see here [1]).  Amaee is the United Kingdom Expert for FCPA Professor.


UK Bribery Act – Year One

The UK Serious Fraud Office is yet to take enforcement action under the UK Bribery Act (“Bribery Act”).  This is hardly a surprise to those familiar with the demands of an investigation into complex economic crime.  The type of bribery cases that the SFO is duty bound to investigate and prosecute are precisely those that involve a heavy commitment of resource and time.   The SFO is reported to currently spend an average of three and a half years and £1.5 million ($2.25 million) investigating each bribery case.  These are not the Munir Patel type of bribery prosecutions that are typically handled by the UK Crown Prosecution Service (“CPS”).

Some commentators had set unrealistic expectations for the speed at which enforcement actions would appear, predicting a swift procession of dawn raids and arrests.  This sense of anticipation and the inevitable anti-climax may well, at least in part, explain the findings of recent surveys, including a poll conducted by Deloitte.   The poll found that fewer than one in ten of the 1200 compliance professionals polled expressed any concern about the possibility of a Bribery Act enforcement action being brought against their organisation.  There appears to be little to fear from the SFO for the vast majority of those polled.  In spite of the undoubted challenges that confront the SFO in the year ahead, it is important for companies and senior individuals to guard against complacency.

In the year since the Bribery Act came into force, David Green CB QC has taken over as Director of the SFO and the UK government has made tangible strides towards the adoption of a UK version of the US Deferred Prosecution Agreement (“DPA”).  The new director will have little choice but to continue the SFO’s policy of guiding, assisting and engaging with responsible corporates and senior individuals, but there is no doubt that he will instil a more hard edged prosecutorial approach at the SFO than has been the case in the past.   Green is a seasoned barrister who has defended and prosecuted serious economic crime cases during his 25 year career at the criminal bar.  He also has prior experience of leading two prosecutions agencies. He was appointed the first director of the Revenue and Customs Prosecutions Office (“RCPO”) in April 2005, and served as director of the CPS Central Fraud Group from January 2010 until his return to the bar in April 2011.

Green began his four year term at the SFO on 23 April 2012.  Since then, he has started to articulate his plans for the SFO in interviews with the Financial Times and most recently in a keynote address he delivered at an anti-corruption conference held in London on 26 June.   At the conference, Green described this as a “challenging but exciting time” for the SFO.  In a likely reference to the Tchenguiz case, he accepted that some of the recent “trenchant” criticism of the SFO has been justified, but stated that the SFO was “here to stay.”  He warned against the “dilution” of the SFO brand by chasing “eye-catching quick results or taking short cuts” and said that he will not “sacrifice solid prosecutorial demands for easy headlines.”  Green will focus the SFO’s “blood and treasures” on only the “most important cases *** that undermine confidence in UK Plc. and the City of London” and those that “undermine a level playing field.”   He said that the SFO would not pursue cases of “crooks overcharging” but would look to use its “unique set up and capabilities to do what others cannot do.”

Green made no reference to the CPS Inspectorate-led review of the SFO that is currently underway, but explained that he has set about re-organising the SFO into four operational divisions; two dedicated to bribery and two to fraud.  He is in the process of recruiting four senior civil servants into the “divisional head” roles.  In addition, he is seeking to appoint a General Counsel to “shape and critique” cases, and a “Specialist Advisor” to “sharpen cases” and advise him on DPAs and civil settlements.  Green made it clear that he is looking to bring external expertise into the organisation.  He said that he wants to “foster and encourage a revolving door between private practice and the SFO” and extended an invitation to members of the junior bar, solicitors, investigators and accountants to join the SFO, either on a permanent basis or on secondment.

Green reiterated his support for the introduction of a UK DPA mechanism, stating that prosecutors should have “access to the broadest possible range of prosecutorial tools” so that they are not “outdone by the opposition.”   He talked about strengthening his intelligence unit and made it clear that he would welcome a debate on whether UK whistle-blowers should be financially rewarded.  He would like to “extend the reach” of the SFO and “encourage and increase self-reporting.”  He expressed the view that the “advantages of self-reporting need to be articulated” so that companies are “inclined” to self-report.  While he cannot give guarantees, he said that “self-reporting is a strong factor in deciding whether to prosecute or not.”  If a prosecution is not in the public interest he said that the SFO is “likely to seek a civil settlement.”  It is clear that the civil recovery mechanism, afforded by the UK Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, will continue to play a major role in future SFO enforcement actions.

Anti-corruption enforcement remains a priority for Green’s SFO which will continue to bring cases under the old UK bribery laws as well as the Bribery Act.  Green confirmed that the SFO is currently handling four self-referrals and that eleven further cases are “being developed.”  He said that most of these involve allegations of corruption.  In relation to the Bribery Act, Green expressed his desire to bring cases that would help clarify the boundaries of the “adequate procedures” defence.  In respect of the term “carries on business or part of a business in the UK” he warned that, in any court case, the SFO would “argue against an overly technical interpretation.”

The SFO’s priorities in relation to enforcement under the Bribery Act will become clearer in the year ahead.  However, companies must not expect early answers on some of the thornier issues under the Bribery Act, such as the extent of the UK’s jurisdiction over non-UK companies; the extremities of third party liability; and the borderline between acceptable corporate hospitality and a prosecutable bribe.  The SFO is likely to begin enforcement under the Bribery Act by seeking prosecutions or settlements in cases where there is clear criminal culpability, before it ventures on to tackle cases that test the boundaries of the Bribery Act.  As we await further clarity from the UK, the recent US Department of Justice declination in the Morgan Stanley case provides companies with valuable insights into considerations that can successfully persuade a prosecutor not to prosecute.  The relevance of this guidance to an assessment of the adequacy of a company’s policies and controls in the context of the Bribery Act will not be lost on readers of this publication.  The DoJ is set to provide further assistance to us all when it launches its much anticipated FCPA guidance.  This is expected in the next few weeks.