In his Report to the Attorney General on the inspection of the Serious Fraud Office, published in November 2012, HM Chief Inspector Michael Fuller QPM found “significant process failures and other weaknesses”.

The inspection relates almost exclusively to casework quality levels and systems under the previous SFO Director, Richard Alderman. Whilst the inspection did not examine the case of the Tchenguiz brothers, which was under judicial review at the time, the issues raised during proceedings were within scope.

Key risks include the need to control the balance and make-up of the SFO caseload more effectively, by improving the intelligence and case acceptance processes. Casework systems need to be streamlined and mandated, with a drive towards standardisation and proper documentary recording. Sound quality assurance needs to be embedded, with clear lines of accountability and responsibility.

“This is a critical time for the SFO,” notes the report, but there is “a window of opportunity, as the new Director has engendered new levels of confidence in staff and stakeholders alike”.

SFO Director David Green CB QC took up his appointment in April 2012 with an aim to bring the agency to the top of its game as an investigator and prosecutor of top tier, complex fraud and corruption. The report, prepared with a view to helping drive through the improvements, makes eight recommendations, all of which Green has accepted. Inspectors also noted strengths in digital evidence handling and victim and witness care.

On the Bar, inspectors agreed that the involvement of suitably experienced and skilled external counsel is essential to the SFO casework process, as long as they are “selected with care, and managed effectively”, but warned against over-use of counsel in key casework decisions and strategic decision-making. The lack of training, induction and performance management for external counsel was noted: “Many junior barristers struggle to integrate as a result, and this has a clear impact on the quality of their casework.”

Work has already begun to address the areas of concern, said the SFO, and Green’s management and organisational restructure is now complete. New General Counsel Alun Milford is to focus on internal guidance, assisting the case-work divisions pre-charge. Distinguished retired judge, HHJ Geoffrey Rivlin QC, with considerable fraud trials experience, has taken on the role of Special Advisor, looking at quality assurance. Other new roles include Head of Investigations, revising standards of good practice to ensure a common approach across all investigations, and a Head of Policy and External Engagement to focus on stakeholder relations. Recruitment drives aimed at the private Bar and solicitors are also under way to bring in new blood to the agency.

“The changes at the SFO do not mean that the role of outside counsel will be diminished, simply refocused to work within the new structure. The SFO will continue to rely on outside counsel to advise on case developments, assist with decisions and, obviously advocate at court and, where required, to provide one-off advice to the Director on case specific issues,” an SFO spokesman told Counsel.