Amongst those who operate or act (whether voluntarily or not) within global law enforcement arenas, there has long been a tendency in some quarters to view the UK law enforcement landscape with less trepidation than that in the US. For many years law enforcement agencies in the United States and particularly the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and Securities and Exchange Commission – exponentially better funded and resourced – have drawn the limelight with billion-dollar bribery-related settlements such as the $1.78 billion settlement with Brazilian petrochemicals company, Petrobras, and the $1.01 billion settlement with Swedish telecommunications company Telia. There are signs, however, that a confluence of factors is now resulting in an increasingly aggressive posture being taken by UK law enforcement bodies and those who discount the appetite, powers and ability of those bodies may do so at their own peril.
Of all the UK law enforcement agencies, none has faced more apparent recent criticism and calls for reform than the UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO), the agency charged with tackling the top level of serious or complex fraud, bribery and corruption. The collapse of the 2019 trial of two former Tesco directors accused of false accounting (with the trial judge declaring that “I concluded in certain crucial areas the prosecution case was so weak it should not be left for a jury’s consideration”) was a high profile setback for the SFO, as was both the 2020 acquittal of three Barclays executives accused of making illegal payments to Qatar and the collapse of the case against the bank itself. Whilst it continues to defend itself against allegations that it is unfit for purpose and that a complete overhaul of the agency is necessary, the attacks appear to be having an unwelcome consequence for those in the SFO’s eyesight; namely, whilst the SFO faces increased scrutiny and the pressure of bringing significant prosecutions, there is likely to be much less shirking of high-profile investigations and, once an investigation is open, it will bring all its powers and expertise to bear. Put simply, once an investigation is opened, the SFO will play to win.