Case Progression in the Serious Fraud Office (Oct 19)

Case progression in the Serious Fraud Office (SFO)

Review of case progression systems and processes in the SFO between case acceptance and charge.

The majority of cases that the SFO deals with are huge, complex matters. A case can involve terabytes of data, all of which has to be analysed and dealt with in accordance with the laws relating to privilege, disclosure and data protection that apply to all criminal cases. The cases also usually involve an international element which will require co-operation of another country’s legal system. All of these issues bring challenges to the effective progression of cases some of which are outside the control of the SFO.

The SFO has been subject to criticism about its handling of cases, and how it progresses some cases; there have been some failures but generally the SFO performs well and has delivered good results in many challenging cases. Over the course of earlier HMCPSI inspections of SFO, and in recent discussion with the SFO and stakeholders, it was apparent that a key concern was the time it took cases to reach a conclusion. It was therefore set out in the HMCPSI business plan to inspect SFO case progression from the point of case acceptance to the decision to charge.

To undertake the inspection we examined six cases in detail, looking particularly at the stage between case acceptance and charge. The cases examined were selected randomly to enable inspectors to look at various aspects of SFO business. For each case inspectors spoke to staff and case managers, reviewed key documents, SFO processes and documentation that supports casework governance and assurance.

What we found 

The SFO has clear and well documented internal casework processes, contained in an operational handbook which sets out what is expected and in some instances mandated. However, the inspection found that there is inconsistency in application, with individual case managers operating in their preferred way and this can impact the effectiveness and efficiency of case progression. In some of the cases examined inspectors found that this inconsistent and personal approach can hamper the ability of staff joining a team to get to grips with the case, and of those working on more than one team at once to understand what is expected of them. Whilst there is a clear internal guidance and expectations the SFO could do more to improve its assurance processes to ensure full and appropriate compliance. The SFO have recently commissioned a new case management system which they hope will address some of the concerns identified.

Unused material was handled reasonably well, and there were examples of very good consideration of the material and strong disclosure strategies. However, there were inconsistencies in practice here, too. Compliance with the handbook and the methods of different case controllers in several of the cases we examined resulted in inconsistencies in approach and hampered case progression, particularly when a peer review highlighted problems, or a new case controller changed the original case strategy. In these instances this caused delay and re-work.

Cases are accepted for investigation in a timely manner, but delays then occur. This is often as a result of two key blockages: firstly, the allocation of a case controller and a suitable team takes too long in some cases; and secondly, the digital forensic unit is significantly behind in its processing of the digital material the case teams need to investigate. Resourcing inevitably plays a part in this. The SFO has carried out significant work to address the concerns with regard to processing the backlog of digital material but suffers from the same issues that face many in the criminal justice system with the increases in digital material. Whilst there is a strategic and tactical co-ordination group, in its current form it does not examine cross-team resourcing as the case has yet to be allocated to case teams when discussion takes place. The SFO needs to develop a strategic approach to resourcing and case management.

There are opportunities for learning and development, and staff report that they receive the training they need to do their jobs. The SFO has trained and supported staff to become investigators and accountants, both disciplines where there are shortages, and this is part of a high-level strategy to support more effective case progression by having the right balance of staff to be able to support casework. However given some of the issues set out in this report the SFO should consider developing specific case progression training or increasing the focus on case progression current training packages.

There are various strands to the oversight and assurance of casework, including case review panels, Heads of Divisions’ meetings with case teams, peer reviews and performance data. Many of the opportunities for assurance tend not to have a specific focus on case progression and look at the entirety of the case. We found that case review panels varied in frequency and depth of analysis, and tend to be more focussed on legal issues than case progression. We set out that Heads of Division could do more to challenge, influence and quality assure cases that are not progressing effectively.

Senior managers are fully engaged with partners and stakeholders, and there are agreements and protocols in place and an international team in the SFO; we saw that this could have tangible benefits for mutual assistance and case progression. There was one very good example of how this stakeholder engagement aided case progression in our file examination.

The SFO has made a greater commitment to victims and witnesses; there are more resources applied, and clearer expectations set, which have led to improved communications with victims and witnesses. The requirement for case managers to develop a victim and witness strategy at an early stage is leading to more timely determination of a person’s status as a suspect, victim or witness, which is improving the quality of investigative decisions. Inspectors noted major improvements since the last inspection in 2016.

Inspectors identified two examples of good practice, and made seven recommendations. The recommendations were:

  1. The Serious Fraud Office should develop a resourcing model that takes into account staff skills and time available to progress cases effectively.
  2. The Serious Fraud Office should review resourcing in a holistic manner to ensure equity across cases in allocation of the teams and skills and reconsider allocation of the case controller and team when it becomes apparent that cases are not being taken forward promptly after acceptance.
  3. The Serious Fraud Office should review resourcing across divisions to ensure that resources are allocated according to case needs, and in such a way that when changes are required, there is as little disruption as possible to case progression.
  4. The Serious Fraud Office should be clear about the use of independent counsel, including guidance for case controllers on their deployment and monitoring, and a mechanism for evaluating the value for money they provide.
  5. The Serious Fraud Office should develop understanding across the casework divisions of the impact of seizures on the digital forensic unit, and the need to be proportionate in their demands and expectations of this unit. This should be accompanied by measures to significantly reduce the impact of current delays on case progression.
  6. The Serious Fraud Office should consider how it can improve the focus and delivery of training to support case progression. The Serious Fraud Office needs to develop a programme of learning and development that delivers the core skills for effective case progression.

Heads of Division should set and monitor key milestones in the investigation and prosecution of cases, and should enforce compliance with the operational handbook.

Case Progression in the Serious Fraud Office (463 kB)