* SFO says no presumption in favour of civil settlements
* Lawyers say firms may think twice before blowing whistle
By Huw Jones
LONDON, Oct 9 Britain's Serious Fraud Office
(SFO) said blowing the whistle on crime won't guarantee freedom
from prosecution as the fraud-buster seeks to restore its
credibility after embarrassing setbacks.
The SFO's new head David Green took up the reins in May and
is refocusing the agency to pursue a more aggressive and
targeted crime-fighting strategy.
Once dubbed the "Seriously Flawed Office" by detractors, it
sought to reinforce its mission in new guidelines on Tuesday
that become effective immediately.
"The SFO's primary role is to investigate and prosecute," it
said. "The revised policies make it clear that there will be no
presumption in favour of civil settlements in any
Lawyers see a shift in how the SFO will treat companies that
voluntarily own up to possible crime, ending the assumption they
would get off with civil penalties and won't end up behind bars.
"The new SFO policy means that self-reporting by businesses
of potential incidents of bribery and corruption, which used be
like a cosy fireside chat, has been replaced by a much a
stricter regime," said Richard Burger, a regulatory partner at
Reynolds Porter Chamberlain.
"From now on it will be an interview - without coffee."
Businesses that decide to meet with the SFO to report an
incident need to be clear that they are meeting a prosecutor,
Jonathan Hitchin, a litigation partner at law firm Allen &
Overy, said the shift may lead to some companies which discover
suspected illegality to question whether there is a benefit in
The SFO wants to rebuild its reputation after judges in one
recent case slammed the agency for "sheer incompetence" for
obtaining search warrants unlawfully.
But some critics argue the SFO will continue to have an
uphill battle to build its credibility until it gets more funds
to hire expertise in what are often lengthy and complex cases.
Green had said in June in his first speech that he would
focus on "top drawer fraud" and improve how the cases are
handled. "Is the SFO here to stay? Yes, it is here to stay. Does
it have to prove itself? Yes it does," he said.