UK's Serious Fraud Office Sets Out Strategy Amid Rising Tech Threats, Challenges

Tom Burroughes Group Editor London 24 April 2024

UK's Serious Fraud Office Sets Out Strategy Amid Rising Tech Threats, Challenges

The UK public agency involved in the fight against corruption, fraud and bribery has been through a difficult period, beset by delays and increasing demands on its time. The organisation has set out a five-year strategy.

The UK Serious Fraud Office, has reportedly launched a review of its past and present cases after finding problems with software used in evidence disclosure. The SFO has also set out its five-year strategy, showing that it intends to use new powers and tools to crack down on alleged wrongdoers.

A story in the Financial Times, citing unnamed sources, said an internal memo in February flagged problems with the disclosure tool during its investigation into London Mining. 

The organisation reportedly said on Friday last week that it was telling defendants in all affected cases about the issue, which affected its ability to search for relevant terms in evidence. However, it had identified a fix for the problem.

“We have deployed an effective solution to address an identified issue affecting some searches on our current e-discovery software and are disclosing the issue to defendants on relevant cases in line with our duties as a responsible prosecutor,” the SFO is quoted as saying.

The SFO, meanwhile, set out its strategy for the coming five years, and identified technology as a battleground. 

“Serious fraud, bribery and corruption remain significant threats to the security and reliability of the UK as a global marketplace of choice,” the SFO said. “Criminals are exploiting new and powerful tools, from crypto assets that enable money laundering to AI-generated audio or visuals that can defeat traditional defences against fraud.”

“As the pace of change quickens, citizens are more vulnerable to exploitation. Nonetheless, these changes also present opportunities for investigators and prosecutors in the fight against crime; technology can make it easier to review evidence, contact witnesses and support victims,” it said. “We must rethink our existing approach to casework and find ways to support our expert staff in the work which only they can do: unravelling the complexity of financial crime and bringing successful prosecutions.”

The SFO alluded to problems at the organisation, which was founded 40 years ago.

“At the SFO we have experienced our own problems: the length of our cases has increased, their complexity has grown and – at times – we have struggled to keep pace with demand,” it said. 

The agency said it needed to widen its means of gathering intelligence in the fight against corruption and other financial crime.

“Alongside more regular investigative activity, we have to make the best use of the covert powers currently available to us or to our partners like the National Crime Agency (NCA) or the City of London Police; we need to find ways to obtain evidence more quickly and build compelling cases in shorter timescales,” it said.

The SFO said it would build on its “successful use of Deferred Prosecution Agreements.” Among a list of measures, it said it would use new powers such as the UK’s “failure to prevent fraud” offence.

Richard Burger, investigations partner at WilmerHale, said the SFO strategy suggested a “proactive approach,” while it also accepted limits on resources and powers. 

“One key message is an acknowledgment to support the SFO’s principal asset: its people. The SFO cannot be a leading law enforcement agency in the fight against financial crime and have credibility with its international partners, unless it has the best investigators, disclosure specialists, forensic accountants and lawyers,” Burger said. 

“The insight into where the SFO has fallen short is refreshing, but the remediation plans have to be realistic and keep pace with the rate of criminal fraud and corruption,” he added.

Nick Barnard, partner at Corker Binning, said: “The first of [the SFO’s] four strategy outcomes addresses the need for a ‘highly specialised, engaged and skilled workforce’ and sets out various practical measures for improving SFO recruitment and retention, reflecting that this has been a problem for the SFO in recent years, which must be resolved if high-profile failures of the kind which dogged the Osofsky era are to be avoided.” (Barnard referred to former SFO director Lisa Osofsky, who stepped down in August last year after a term of office beset by a number of scandals.)

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