Extract taken from 'The Securities Ligation Review – edition 5'

Public enforcement

i Forms of action

The FCA has a range of powers to investigate and sanction authorised firms, approved individuals or listed issuers who it suspects have breached FSMA or the FCA's rules. It also has the power to impose administrative sanctions on any person in respect of a breach of requirements under MAR. For the most part, the regulator will have the power to impose sanctions directly where it concludes that a breach has occurred. In those cases, it will issue a decision notice, notifying the firm or individual of its findings and imposing what it considers to be the appropriate penalty. That decision notice will usually be published. It will then be for the recipient of the decision notice to decide whether it wishes to refer the FCA's decision to a specialist court known as the Upper Tribunal, which will hear the matter afresh, and determine the appropriate action to be taken by the decision maker (this could include an increase in penalty). The matter is then remitted back to the FCA.

In the context of securities, the key areas that the FCA tends to focus on in its civil enforcement actions include failures in a firm's governance, systems or controls, breaches of MAR requirements ensuring disclosure and transparency in relation to price-sensitive information, civil market abuse offences, failures to properly advise on investments (where there is a duty to do so) or to comply with conduct of business or financial promotion rules, and individual failings of a firm's senior managers.

The FCA also has the power to investigate and prosecute certain criminal market misconduct offences, including insider dealing, making a false or misleading statement intended to induce someone to invest in securities, creating a false or misleading impression in relation to relevant markets or securities or in respect of benchmarks. The FCA shares the power to prosecute those offences with other prosecutors including the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Director of the SFO and the Crown Prosecution Service.

Those agencies have agreed on broad principles that guide the decision as to which agency should investigate a suspected offence and, where more than one agency is investigating, how they should cooperate to avoid unnecessary duplication and ensure procedural fairness.

The FCA, unlike other prosecutors, does not have the power to prosecute criminal fraud or offences under the Theft Act 1968.

ii Procedure

Where the FCA decides to commence an enforcement investigation, its first step will be to appoint investigators, who will usually be FCA staff. A notice of that appointment and the reasons for it will usually be given to the individual or firm that is the subject of that investigation. There will then follow scoping discussions to determine the likely structure and timescale of the investigation.

FSMA grants the FCA a range of powers to compel the production of documents and information relevant to its investigation (including interviews). It will typically exercise these powers following scoping discussions with the subject of the investigation to gather the information it considers it will need to progress the investigation. However, the FCA may not compel the production of legally privileged documents.

In criminal market misconduct investigations, the FCA may, as an alternative to compelling document production, obtain a search warrant from the court to enter and search premises (with a police officer) for the purposes of obtaining relevant documents.

Typically, the FCA will conduct interviews after gathering relevant documents. It may use powers granted to it under FSMA to compel relevant persons to attend interviews. In the context of criminal market conduct investigations it may, however, choose to conduct voluntary interviews under caution, so that what is said in the interview will be admissible as evidence in a criminal court.

Once it has concluded that it has sufficient grounds to make a finding against the firm or person being investigated, the FCA will, in administrative cases, issue a warning notice, setting out the contraventions it considers have occurred and the proposed penalty. It has the power to publish that notice. The recipient of the warning notice will have an opportunity to make representations on its contents before the regulator finalises its decision in a decision notice.50 This will be done by the Regulatory Decisions Committee, which is an independent function within the FCA. The findings set out in the decision notice can be challenged by referring the matter to the Upper Tribunal for a fresh hearing of the facts and law, or seeking judicial review by the courts of some flawed aspect of the FCA's process on narrow, public law grounds.

In market conduct proceedings, where the FCA determines that a criminal penalty is warranted, it will prosecute the offence through the criminal courts in the same manner as any other applicable prosecutor.

iii Settlements

The overwhelming majority of FCA administrative actions against authorised firms and listed issuers are settled at an early stage. Firms are typically incentivised to do so by factors such as reputational concerns, management time and distraction and the availability of a discount of up to 30 per cent on the financial penalty.53 Individuals being investigated will be facing potential loss of their livelihood by being banned from regulated positions, or a substantial fine, and may well be less incentivised by such factors (and indeed may opt to fast-track referral of the case to the Upper Tribunal).

There is no judicial oversight of the regulator's decision to settle a civil or administrative matter, although the FCA must have regard to its statutory objectives when agreeing a settlement. However, the settlement scheme does not apply to civil or criminal proceedings brought in the courts.

As in private actions, the settlement will essentially take the form of a written agreement. As part of that agreement, the individual or firm under investigation will usually agree the form of wording that will be included in a public notice, along with the details of the fine or other penalty that will be imposed. Upon reaching a settlement before a decision notice is issued, the person or firm in question will be expected to cover its own legal costs.

In criminal proceedings, a guilty plea will be a mitigating factor in the court's assessment of an appropriate sentence for a criminal conviction (often meriting up to a 30 per cent reduction in sentence) and a prosecutor retains discretion about the selection of charges that may be brought. The prosecutor may even go so far as to present a recommended sentence to the court. While a prosecutor can decide which charges to bring, it is ultimately for the court to decide what sentence is appropriate in all the circumstances. The courts have in the past expressed displeasure with a prosecutor presenting a recommended sentence as a 'done deal'.54

The Director of Public Prosecutions and the SFO now have the power to offer deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs) in relation to certain offences and when dealing with corporate defendants.55 For a DPA to come into effect, the court must determine that the DPA is in the interests of justice and its terms are fair, reasonable and proportionate. The use of DPAs in the UK is not yet widespread.56

iv Sentencing and liability

The FCA has powers to impose a broad range of disciplinary penalties and sanctions.

The sanctions most commonly used by the FCA are:

fines (with no upper limit on the amount);a public censure;imposing suspensions and restrictions on firms from conducting regulated business and on regulated individuals from carrying out regulated functions; anda private warning.

The FCA has articulated a five-step penalty setting process.57 The FCA will usually consider disgorgement of any benefit received as a result of the breach and an additional financial penalty reflecting the seriousness of the breach. An adjustment (upwards or downwards) may also be made to reflect any aggravating and mitigating factors as well as to ensure that the penalty has an appropriate deterrent effect.58

Following the implementation of MAR, the FCA also has the power to prohibit an individual from holding an office or position involving responsibility for taking decisions about the management of an investment firm, and from acquiring or disposing of financial instruments, whether on his or her own account or for a third party.59

In addition to its formal disciplinary powers, the FCA also has the ability to impose other sanctions, including banning an individual, suspending an issuer's securities from trading, varying or withdrawing a firm's permission or an individual's licensed status, and requiring redress or restitution to be paid where consumers have suffered loss as a result of a breach. In addition, the FCA may now require issuers to publish information and other corrective statements.60 Under the umbrella of the legislative implementation of MiFID, the regulators now have the power to require an investment firm, credit institution or recognised investment exchange to remove a person from the management board if the regulator considers it necessary for the purpose of the exercise by it of functions under the Markets in the Financial Instruments Directive or the Markets in Financial Instruments Regulation.61

The FCA can also pass evidence to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy with a view to enabling director disqualification orders to be sought, or director disqualification undertakings to be accepted, in respect of any individuals involved in certain breaches.