Too Slow at the SFO?

A new report has raised concerns about the Serious Fraud Office's ability to respond quickly to complaints and keep adequate records of disputes.

Niall Hearty of financial crime specialists Rahman Ravelli considers the new report and its criticisms of the SFO’s response to complaints.

The recently-published HMCPSI (HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate) report on the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) found that the agency was not quick enough in responding to complaints about cases and was not keeping adequate records of disputes. The SFO was, according to the report, taking up to 10 days to acknowledge emails or letters regarding complaints, and often such acknowledgements did not contain enough information. It was critical of the time taken by the SFO to resolve complaints and the levels of communication it offered regarding them.

While the report did go on to say that the general standard of investigation was good, it will arguably have done little to change the minds of those who see the SFO as an organisation that seems to create problems for itself. Its publication was sandwiched between the conviction and sentence of Paul Bond, the last of four men to be jailed over the use of bribery to secure huge oil contracts in Iraq.

This fourth conviction was secured by the SFO in a re-trial and came after the agency’s lengthy and high-profile Unaoil investigation, which uncovered the payment of over $17 million in bribes to secure contracts worth $1.7 billion. But while the conviction and sentencing will have buoyed the mood of the SFO – after what had been a fraught investigation – any celebrations regarding this must have been at least slightly dampened by this report’s criticisms.

The report paints a picture of an agency that is seeking to deliver justice to the victims of serious and complex financial crime and is intent on identifying and punishing those responsible for such wrongdoing. Yet its complaints procedures seem to be falling short – and this is something that does need to be addressed.

Such a shortcoming goes beyond the issue of what marks out of 10 the SFO would receive in a customer satisfaction survey. A failure to handle complaints adequately damages not just the reputation of the SFO but the wider criminal justice system. At a time when it is having to deal with a backlog of Crown Court trials and criticisms over the implementation of the Nightingale courts, any inability to respond to problems as they are highlighted can only make a tricky situation worse.

Two years ago, the HMCPSI reported that the SFO’s sharp focus on case work delivery had led to a culture where a neglectful approach to management was tolerated. A previous HMCPSI report had raised the issue of SFO cases being slow to progress. The SFO responded to the 2019 report by announcing a raft of measures to tackle the problems that had been highlighted. The years since the slow pace of investigations was reported on have seen the SFO closing a number of long-running investigations, as its Director Lisa Osofsky has made clear her intention to speed up the agency’s activities.

It now remains to be seen if the SFO can and will pull out all the stops to address the problems this most recent report has detailed. There may be some who regard the issues raised by HMCPSI as relatively minor in the big scheme of things. But the SFO is an organisation that relies on information gathering. Communication plays a large role in achieving that. A failure to communicate in a timely, organised and appropriate way with those it needs to be in touch with can only hamper its efforts to achieve the goals it sets itself.

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