SFO director says task justifies special powers: Peter Rodgers reports on accusations that the Serious Fraud Office has become a modern Star Chamber

Click to follow
ANTAGONISM against the Serious Fraud Office is at least partly due to a deliberate erosion by Parliament of suspects' right to silence in white-collar cases, according to lawyers who have dealings with the organisation.

The SFO investigators have stronger powers than the police, and this has led to accusations from suspects that the headquarters at Elm Street in London houses a modern Star Chamber.

The SFO's defenders retort that it is dealing with complex cases and sophisticated people and needs special powers if it is not to have rings run round it.

George Staple, director general of the SFO, said recently it was hardly surprising the organisation was viewed with deep suspicion by those under suspicion.

Under Section 2 of the 1987 Criminal Justice Act, the SFO can compel those under investigation to answer questions or produce documents, under pain of criminal penalties.

Professor Michael Levi, in research for the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, said 'There seems little doubt that the privilege against self-incrimination is almost dead in white- collar crime cases.'

The strength of the SFO's special powers is underlined by the fact that seconded police officers cannot conduct Section 2 interviews themselves. They have to leave the work to full-time staff of the SFO, an organisation set up to fight large and complex frauds, of over pounds 5m, using multi- disciplinary teams drawn from lawyers, accountants and police officers on secondment.

Mr Staple, a solicitor, has strongly defended his powers to erode the right to silence. He argues they are similar to those available to inspectors appointed by the Department of Trade and Industry under the Companies Act, or to investigators using the Insolvency Act.

He says that unlike those Acts, transcripts of section 2 interviews are not admissible in court, except where a witness gives contradictory evidence at a trial.

Last year, Mr Staple authorised interviews or disclosures of documents, or both, under the section 882 times, compared with 765 the year before. Many of the orders are to force bankers and accountants to break client confidentiality and supply information to the investigators so a broad picture can be built. The controversy has been over a substantial minority of orders against key suspects in alleged frauds, including the Polly Peck and Maxwell cases.

Mr Staple defends Section 2 on the grounds that fraud is special because of the 'myriad of opportunities for concealment which companies and trusts provide'.

Professor Levi said that most defence lawyers to whom he had spoken found SFO staff 'civilised, sensible people with whom to do business. There does not exist the same level of apprehension about oppression and the fabrication of cases that exists elsewhere in the crime control system.'