SFO proposes to take over large Crown fraud cases

THE SERIOUS Fraud Office has proposed taking over some of the bigger fraud prosecutions now carried out by the Crown Prosecution Service.

The suggestion, made to the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, would require extra resources to allow the SFO to take on a heavier workload than its current maximum of 60 cases.

The idea has been put forward against the background of a wide- ranging review by Barbara Mills, Director of Public Prosecutions, of the role of the CPS's Fraud Investigation Group. This prosecutes cases investigated by police forces.

A key advantage of handing over more fraud cases to the SFO is that it is an investigatory body and has wide powers under Section 2 of the 1987 Criminal Justice Act to compel witnesses to answer questions and produce documents.

These powers are not available to the FIG, or to the police when they are investigating fraud.

Critics say that expanding the SFO, which employs lawyers and accountants and large numbers of police on secondment, would be an expensive way to handle other, lesser frauds.

But the SFO counters that a combination of its Section 2 powers and a multidisciplinary approach could be cost-effective, leading to better results in prosecutions and earlier decisions to drop doubtful cases.

Despite the impression given by some well-publicised failures to secure guilty verdicts, figures to be released next month will show the SFO's conviction rate in prosecutions has risen from 67 per cent last year to just over 70 per cent this year.

The CPS's Fraud Investigation Group handles 700 to 800 fraud cases at a time. Some of them are only marginally smaller and less serious than those prosecuted by the SFO, which looks into complex frauds of pounds 5m or more in which there are public interest issues.

Sources at the SFO said that the proposal was only one of a number of ideas floated in front of the Royal Commission, which has taken a deep interest in how the investigation and prosecution of fraud could be improved. Any changes would depend on the commission's views and on the outcome of the review of the FIG by Mrs Mills, herself a former director of the SFO.

The SFO believes it could expand its investigating teams without adding substantially to basic administration costs, so the extra resources required would not be large.

The CPS and the City of London police caused a surprise on Wednesday when they offered no evidence at the start of a trial of three men accused of fraudulently handling ICI shares worth pounds 5.5m. This was a case the SFO could have taken on because it is above its threshold.

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