View from City Road: SFO must not be weakened

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Michael Mates's attack on the Serious Fraud Office has been crumbling away under close examination. Indeed, much of the furore about the SFO's record is a well- worn story from the Guinness and Blue Arrow days and is beginning to look out of date. The conviction rate has been nudging upwards - from 65.5 to 71 per cent last year - and in the handling of trials the SFO has been learning from experience.

The soundest aspect of the Mates intervention may have been the timing, with the report of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice to be published next Tuesday.

Learned arguments that have been rumbling on for years about the effectiveness of the SFO have now been put on the parliamentary agenda, which will ensure that the fraud sections of the commission's work will not be swamped by wider issues.

The commission has looked in detail at how to improve fraud investigation and the handling of trials, and will be giving its views on the Serious Fraud Office's pet proposals. These include earlier disclosure of the defence case in fraud trials and the introduction of formal plea bargaining.

The SFO is also inescapably linked to the commission's analysis of the gradual erosion in recent years of defendants' right to silence. The SFO's section 2 powers to obtain interviews and documents even after a suspect has been charged are the leading edge of the trend.

Such developments quite rightly make civil rights-conscious lawyers uncomfortable. But large, complex frauds are different from most other crimes, as the Roskill report that led to the setting up of the SFO in 1988 acknowledged. The cards are stacked in favour of fraudsters.

Look, for example, at how large sums of money can be moved almost instantly and untraceably through half-a-dozen offshore financial centres. And this tradition of special treatment of financial criminals is not new. For centuries there were draconian laws to deal with fraudulent bankrupts, evolving into the DTI inspectors' tough powers.

The SFO will no doubt be stricter in future about leaks of pending arrests, case officers will not write silly April Fool letters and there will be more care by police when they seize documents. But Asil Nadir should not be allowed to wreck, even by proxy, a strengthening of the machinery for catching fraudsters.