SFO chief calls for wider powers in fraud cases

THE DIRECTOR of the Serious Fraud Office is expected to call for a "one-stop shop" approach to fraud trials, with tough new powers for judges, when she addresses senior police and law officers at a symposium on economic crime tomorrow.

Rosalind Wright is expected to use a keynote speech at the conference at Jesus College, Cambridge, to argue that judges in such cases should be given powers to close down apparently fraudulent companies and freeze assets before criminal charges are laid and to ban or blacklist errant company directors from all commercial and financial activities.

She is also likely to suggest judges be given additional powers similar to those currently held by City regulators and greater powers to award compensation to fraud victims.

Her recommendations will include an end to jury trials for complex fraud cases and their replacement by a judge sitting with a specially qualified lay member, perhaps with a banking or accountancy background.

Mrs Wright is understood to feel the criminal justice system needs to be updated to deal with 21th century business practices and problems.

More than 900 delegates from around the world will be at the symposium to discuss ways of tackling crime against governments and abuse of the world's financial markets.

Corruption and the potential threat to national security caused by organised crime are among the topics to be discussed by high-ranking officials, police officers and diplomats

Mrs Wright's comments are likely to re-open the debate on jury trials for fraud and come as the Law Commission prepares a report on the future of the country's fraud laws and the Home Office considers proposals for abolishing jury trials in complex fraud cases.

Mrs Wright is expected to say that the laws and criminal justice system have not kept pace with changes in commercial practices.

The Serious Fraud Office was set up 11 years ago, after the Roskill Commission first raised criticisms of the jury system for complex fraud cases in 1985.

Mrs Wright is expected to suggest that existing laws and offences, sometimes set out in arcane language, can make cases almost incomprehensible to a jury.

As a result, trials are long and difficult to manage, with pressure on both prosecution and defence to slim them down and so deny a jury the opportunity to review all the evidence.

She is thought to favour the additional powers recently given to the Financial Services Authority, which can order anyone breaching the rules to repay profits and compensate their victims.

The FSA will also have powers to launch criminal prosecutions for breaches of money- laundering regulations and insider dealing.