View from City Road: The answer is to improve the SFO

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The Independent Online
As smugglers and tax evaders know to their cost, there is a long and successful history in this country of combined investigating and prosecuting bodies. The Inland Revenue won convictions in 91 criminal cases last year, and only four were acquitted in court proceedings. And the excise men, still chasing contraband at sea as well as at airports, caught 2,642 people for drugs offences and had 1,705 imprisoned.

But in the wider criminal law, the trend has been away from this dual function, despite its effectiveness in specialist areas. Police investigations were split from prosecutions in the 1985 Act that led to the setting up of the Crown Prosecution Service.

Unfortunately for the image of the Serious Fraud Office, it was established in 1988 in deliberate violation of the movement towards separation of functions. From the start that put the SFO in an uneasy position, attacked as much for alleged inroads on civil liberties as for its record.

But it now looks as if, far from abolishing the SFO to punish it for a few high-profile problems, the Government is sensibly leaning in the other direction. One of the favoured options in a review now under way is to hand the SFO some of the bigger fraud cases of the Crown Prosecution Service. The SFO's powers to compel witnesses to answer questions could be applied to a larger number of cases, without new legislation.

The review was recommended by the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, which said the same body should investigate all cases of serious and complex fraud. The SFO, with its workload dropping - because fraud is linked to the economic cycle - favoured taking on just the bigger CPS cases.

Certainly, the argument for a special agency with extra powers to fight complex frauds has not been undermined by the fracas over the Nadir case. It would be particularly silly to abandon the SFO experiment after only five years. The sensible thing is to make it work better, and that means improvements in court procedures as well as in the SFO itself.

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