SFO landmark successes may not silence critics

The much-derided Serious Fraud Office (SFO) won two landmark court room cases this week, sending hotelier Robert Feld to jail for eight years and convicting Abbas Gokal in the world's biggest fraud case. But will this be enough to silence the SFO's legion of critics?

Ever since its founding in the 1980s as the agency to clean up big business frauds, the SFO has rocked from one failure to the next.

There were howls of outrage when Roger Levitt was convicted of fraud and sentenced to just 180 hours' community service. And there was even greater public disillusionment when Kevin and Ian Maxwell were acquitted after an eight-month trial that cost the taxpayer more than pounds 20m.

There was no disguising the delight at the SFO's Elm Street offices this week following the double win. "It's been a great week for the SFO," declared Chris Dickson, case controller for the prosecution of Gokal for $1.2bn of fraud.

The SFO's line is that its future was already assured before this week's successes. They point to the Davy Report two years ago which was accepted by both the Government and the Opposition, which backed the SFO in its present form.

But then came Maxwell, and the old criticisms were aired once again. Was the SFO's structure, using teams of accountants, solicitors and police the right one? Was the evidence produced at trials too complicated for juries to understand? Were the SFO's special powers to require people to produce documents and answer questions too draconian? Would it not be best to just accept that the SFO had failed, and merge into another body such as the Crown Prosecution service or a new financial regulator?

George Staple, the litigation lawyer from Clifford Chance who retires this month as head of the SFO to make way for Rosalinde Wright (previously of the Securities and Futures Authority), admits that Maxwell was a big set-back. But he points out that the SFO has a duty to prosecute all cases of serious fraud where there is even a reasonable chance of success. He points to press criticism of the Crown Prosecution Service's failure to prosecute certain cases where the evidence is not water-tight.

Losing a case does not necessarily mean it was wrong to bring it, he insists. He is delighted at the two successes this week, particularly in terms of the large numbers of victims involved. "But I think the SFO has already shown that it is prosecuting big cases. It's a very effective organisation."

The public's despair at the SFO's fumbling of previous cases like Maxwell, which led some fellow-investigators to dub it "the Serious Farce Office", is surprisingly at odds with perceptions inside many financial regulators.

One regulator commented yesterday: "Inside the regulatory system the SFO is seen as quite successful, and that this success is largely unsung. Obviously the Maxwell and Levitt cases were seen as unsuccessful. But I think on the whole George Staple deserves credit for what he has achieved."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Guru Careers: Pricing Analyst

£30 - 35k: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pricing Analyst to join a leading e-...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K YR1: SThree: At SThree, we like to be dif...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Did you know? SThree is a mul...

Guru Careers: C# Project Team Lead

£55 - 65k (DOE): Guru Careers: A unique opportunity for a permanent C# Develop...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada