In a speech last week, David Green QC, the newly appointed Director of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) announced that “I aim to recharge the SFO’s corporate self-respect and lead it to the top of its game as a major crime-fighting agency”.
He could hardly have said anything else, but the worrying aspect of these remarks is that something very similar was said by Richard Alderman four years ago when he was appointed. Mr Alderman’s tenure began against the background of a devastating report by Jessica de Grazia, the New York prosecutor brought in by Lord Goldsmith to review the performance of the SFO. Mr Green’s tenure is likely to begin in a similar way. Later this month the CPS Inspectorate is due to publish its own report on the SFO. It is not expected to make comfortable reading.
However, Mr Green will find support from a quarter that he may not expect. Most defence practitioners will wish the SFO well, and will lend their support to its continued existence. Though on the face of it this may appear to be counter-intuitive, in fact we need our opponents to be properly resourced and competent to do their job. Poor prosecutors make poor decisions. Badly resourced prosecutors fail to meet deadlines, answer calls or return letters. We know this, because we have to deal with the CPS every day.
The scale of Mr Green’s job was laid out by him in his speech. He needs to recruit a new chief investigator, a general counsel, a head of policy and external affairs (to replace staff who have left recently), and he needs to fill many more gaps further down the organisation. He is also creating a new role focusing on managing cases between charge and trial.
One problem he will come up against immediately is a shortage of high calibre staff to fill these posts. Most of the people who have left the SFO in recent months went to American firms which offered salaries around three times what they were being paid by the SFO. I guess they won’t be returning. Many prosecutors in other government departments will think they are safer staying where they are, with the future of the SFO still uncertain.
A more general problem is that there has been a general decline in the numbers of high quality lawyers opting to specialise in criminal law. The government has cut funding to such an extent that many think it is no longer feasible to become criminal lawyers, notwithstanding the interest of the work.
There is a way through this, and it can only be provided by the government. It absolutely has to provide tangible support to Mr Green. That means restoring its budget to its 2008 level of £52 million, rather than the paltry £32 million that Mr Green inherits. And it means making the case for the SFO. Confidence in our financial system depends on investors recognising that we operate clean, properly regulated markets. Ultimately that means we must have the capacity to bring the most difficult and challenging cases to trial. That is why the SFO was created, and that is why it must survive.