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Serious Fraud Office appoints SFA director to succeed Staple

Rosalind Wright to take over at 'beleaguered' SFO after its high-profil e difficulties
Rosalind Wright, the new director designate of the Serious Fraud Office, yesterday pledged to examine suggestions for using the civil law to tackle white collar crime and to seek ways of cutting the length of fraud trials.

Speaking after the Attorney General, Sir Nicholas Lyell, named her as the pounds 108,192 a year successor to the outgoing SFO director George Staple, Mrs Wright said the proposal for calling alleged fraudsters to account in the civil courts - where there is a lower burden of proof and no jury - was already under consideration.

Mrs Wright said she had begun to examine the issue at the Securities and Futures Authority, of which she is currently general counsel and an executive director. "It is something I had hoped to develop further," she said.

"We think this is probably the way things are moving," she said, adding that she would look at American experience of using civil measures "with great interest".

"Beleaguered" is how the SFO has come to be widely described in the wake of its more high-profile difficulties, culminating in the ruling out of a second Maxwell trial last year.

Mrs Wright, a 54-year-old barrister and mother of three grown-up children, will have an initial five-year contract to build on an already reasonable (though little noticed) conviction rate in the lower-profile cases whilst seeking to avoid more public relations disasters.

She has built up senior experience in an official organisation. Mrs Wright was formerly head of Prosecutions at the SFA, and between 1983 and 1987 was the head of the fraud investigation group in the Director of Public Prosecutions Department, the SFO's effective predecessor before its creation in 1988. Mr Staple had been a senior litigation partner with a City law firm before he joined the SFO in 1992.

As general counsel to the Securities and Futures Authority, she has been giving legal advice and analysis internally and externally, and as executive director she has devised and developed SFA [note SFA here] strategy and policy with an emphasis on enforcement.

A product of St Paul's Girls' School and University College London, she practised as a barrister in the chambers of Morris Finer QC before joining public service.

No one was predicting yesterday that life will be anything other than difficult when she takes over her new role on 21 April. A string of disappointments followed the early euphoria of the conviction of Ernest Saunders and the other Guinness One defendants in 1990 - an achievement itself dented by Saunders' successful European Court of Human Rights claim earlier this year that he was denied a fair trial.

While the BCCI trials undoubtedly counted as big successes, the Guinness II and IV trials and the outcomes in Blue Arrow, Brent Walker, Roger Levitt and Maxwell I spelt failure in the public consciousness. Mr Justice Buckley put a stop to Maxwell II in forceful and pointed terms.

Mrs Wright, whose appointment had to be approved by Labour because of proximity to the election, said it was too early for a "mission statement" about her leadership of the agency. But she urged the public to have confidence in a system that had achieved a 63 per cent conviction rate since it began operations in April 1988. Of a total of 349 defendants, 219 have been convicted. At least one defendant, usually the principal offender, was convicted in 75 per cent of cases brought.

A number of convictions result from guilty pleas, however, sometimes following the acceptance of pleas to lesser charges than originally alleged. Mrs Wright will not want to preside over a repeat of the Roger Levitt affair where the defendant ended up with a token sentence.

Staple's five-year record

Appointed, April 1992

Retiring, April 1997

83 prosecutions brought

186 individuals tried

115 convictions

71 acquittals

62 per cent success rate

Biggest successes: Polly Peck, BCCI

Biggest failures: Maxwell, Guinness II, Guinness IV, Brent Walker, Blue Arrow, Roger Levitt (convicted but not jailed)