UK fraud prosecutor to focus on "big picture" to quicken pace

Credit: REUTERS/Andrew Winning

By Huw Jones

LONDON, Oct 24 (Reuters) - Britain's corporate fraud investigator said on Thursday it was sharpening its focus on finding the best evidence needed to bring a prosecution, after it was criticised for being too slow in dealing with cases.

The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has come under parliamentary pressure to quicken the pace of its investigations, some of which have taken many years, leaving companies in limbo.

SFO chief Lisa Osofsky has already pledged to do so, partly by making greater use of technology.

The fraud-buster's new general counsel Sara Lawson, responsible for all cases, said on Thursday she would focus on the "big picture" to avoid being dragged into the weeds.

"It's definitely true that the way we conduct our own investigations is something we are trying to focus on the main issues, and not investigate every single little bit of evidence for where it might take us," Lawson told an anti-bribery compliance conference.

"We need to keep our eye on the bigger picture and where is it all leading."

The Court of Appeal has said that trials in the Crown Court should take no more than three months, and the London court normally allocated to the SFO allows four months, Lawson said.

This means the SFO has about six weeks to present all of its evidence to a jury, and it therefore has to choose its best pieces of evidence in any case, she said.

"What I am trying to encourage people to do is choose those best pieces of evidence earlier on and therefore quicken the pace," Lawson said.

Michelle de Kluyver, a partner at law firm Addleshaw Goddard, said bribery cases take time as the need to "follow the money" can mean trying to obtain evidence from countries that are not very cooperative.

But some cases were taking so long that companies were unable to "get on with their life" and left in uncertainty for a long time, de Kluyver said.

In March, lawmakers from the British parliament's upper house criticised the slow pace of bribery investigations by the SFO and Crown Prosecution Service, and what they said was a failure to update companies on progress.

"It is therefore of the utmost importance that the SFO ... do everything in their power to ensure that bribery cases progress as quickly as possible, and we are not convinced that this is currently occurring," a report from the lawmakers said.

(Reporting by Huw Jones; Editing by Catherine Evans)

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