The facts about the Serious Fraud Office

What is the Serious Fraud Office? Set up in 1987 to tackle booming white collar fraud, particularly in the City, it is the first body of its kind in British legal history to have investigators who can also act as prosecutors. It has extraordinary powers to collect evidence (it can seize documents without making a court appearance), and to question suspects (unlike police, it does not have to go through the normal caution process).

Who works there? How much does it cost? Its present director, George Staple, a former City solicitor, reports to the Attorney General. There are about 130 full-time staff, mostly lawyers and accountants. There are 45 to 55 policemen from the Metropolitan and City of London forces. Cost: pounds 22m in 1992-93 - a 23 per cent rise on 1991-92; the value of fraud investigated was pounds 6.2bn.

Why has it got such a bad reputation? It failed to secure convictions in a number of high-profile cases and critics accuse it of incompetence. A judge ruled yesterday that three stockbrokers accused of fraud had no case to answer. Last week, Roger Levitt, a financial adviser, admitted fraudulent trading but was sentenced to just 180 hours' community service after a plea bargain with SFO. Terry Ramsden walked free after admitting pounds 90m fraud. The second Guinness trial collapsed last year, as did the Blue Arrow trial. The Independent disclosed yesterday that the relationship between some police officers working for SFO and an informer is now the subject of investigation; and that confidential information on another case was passed from the SFO to City solicitors - the same firm for which George Staple had been head of litigation.

Any successes? It brought Peter Clowes to court. There has been a rise in the rate of successful fraud prosecutions to around 70 per cent of cases tried.

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