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Lisa Osofsky address to the Cambridge Symposium on Economic Crime

7 September, 2020 | Speeches

Text version

Two years ago I addressed this conference for the first time as Director of the Serious Fraud Office.  I was less than a week into the job. The world has changed significantly since then.  Protecting our economic security has become ever more important for Governments around the world. As the Attorney General said in her address, the SFO is playing its full part in realising that goal. 

You may recall that I set out four key priorities to steer the SFO’s course in a shrinking world, where evolving challenges are shared not only across law enforcement but by so many other organisations represented here.

In brief those priorities were:

To deepen and enhance our cooperation with UK and international partners, so that criminals cannot exploit our differences or derail our global efforts to work together to tackle crime.

To harness technology and find ways to keep pace, as far as possible, with the data explosion.

To expand our intelligence capability so that we can source more of our own cases and build up a comprehensive understanding of the threats across sectors and the many links which connect them.

To bring greater pace and a laser focus to our investigations.

Although the world has changed, the approach I espoused has remained relevant.  In our jurisdiction and across law enforcement generally, we are increasingly focussed on the fraud threat. The SFO is a vital part of this country’s counter-fraud arsenal and it is an absolute priority for me that we continue to be.

Today, I’d like to re-examine those priorities.  And I am going to touch on a couple of developments which will affect our future work.

Cooperation—a critical element

The SFO had already established excellent relationships with a myriad of partners before I arrived, but the benefits of working together ever more seamlessly – indeed, the imperatives to do so – have only grown, and my colleagues and I have invested time, energy and sheer hard graft into working side by side with our partners to deepen our mutual understanding and carve out ways to learn from and assist one another.   These can be detailed matters, like early engagement to understand how best to craft a letter of request so that it aligns with the receiving authority’s modus operandi, and helps them execute it more effectively. Then there are bigger things –like sharing our experiences of using new technologies and seeing which systems and strategies we can commend to each other. And some of what we are doing is about enhancing our partnerships at a strategic level.

The SFO is part of a network of national and international law enforcement agencies.  Like an eco-system, we thrive on our interrelationships and we have solid successes to show for it.  One highlight is the Airbus DPA in which the French PNF, the SFO and the US Department of Justice reached an unprecedented 3.6bn-euro global settlement with the company – the largest corruption-related DPA anywhere to date.  It is a significant achievement and reflected years of investment from many countries—not just the three that joined forces to cement the DPA resolution (or CJIP resolution if you’re in France).

As an aside, I can’t pretend not to be pleased that such resolutions have meant the SFO making a significant return on investment – Airbus alone was just under 1bn euros to the Treasury and, over the past four years, we have contributed over one and a half billion pounds.

We continue to support the National Economic Crime Centre.  Not only did we play a critical role in helping to build that organisation but we now have five secondees embedded there, working closely to ensure our casework is joined up, and that we are each using our respective skillsets fully to address the crime we face.  The secondees represent our current and ongoing commitment to the success of the NECC, and to our belief that joined up law enforcement is the best way to deliver justice. 


There is little doubt that law enforcement and successful prosecution is predicated on the intelligent use of data.  We can’t fight crime effectively without state of the art technology to ingest, interrogate and analyse it. 

The SFO has invested in a sophisticated eDiscovery platform and our focus is now on unlocking its benefits by harnessing big data and implementing the high performance computing tools that will allow us to process and analyse this data (our evidence) more quickly and comprehensively.

Our aim is to use people where they add the most value and to let technology do the repetitive tasks to which it is best suited.  Machines can replicate processes and read patterns much more quickly and consistently than humans: something we used to great effect in the Rolls Royce case to achieve an earlier resolution (by many years) than would otherwise have happened.

Digital Forensics is key to this. A world of data can be carried on a mobile phone and only a fraction may be relevant to an investigation. Investing in this area will enable better targeting and extraction. We are increasingly using big data analytic tools to bring forensic precision to this work; we have seen increased throughput and reduced processing times. Our challenge now is to industrialise this approach.

Intelligence capability 

One of the first structural changes I made on arrival was to strengthen our Intelligence Division (as it now is). We have recruited additional staff (including doubling our analytical team); we’ve also increased our resource in proactive areas such as human intelligence and financial data analysis.  The division is working closely with the National Economic Crime Centre, City of London Police and the Financial Conduct Authority (and others) to identify the threats and help shape our national response.

Intelligence development being what it is, I can’t say more. But I am confident that we are making progress.  This will become evident, if not explicit, as the Division continues to develop a more proactive approach.

Focus and pace. We have devoted a lot of energy over the past two years to streamlining our work and enhancing the rigor we bring to our investigations, including our case strategies. We recoil from confirmation bias or group think, which can present a major risk in long-running investigations. We have honed our review and challenge processes to ensure we continue to ask the right questions.

And where a case is not going to meet the tests set out in the Code for Crown Prosecutors, it is our responsibility to close it.  There is an opportunity cost to pursuing investigations with diminishing prospects and it is not fair on suspects for an investigation to run on interminably.  Frankly, aging cases are not good for prosecutors either

Without admissible evidence you don’t have a case; sometimes it is simply not possible to get it, or get it against those whom it would be in the public interest to prosecute. It doesn’t mean the investigation was a waste of money. If we were always sure of what an investigation would uncover we would not have to investigate at all. We could skip straight to charging.

And of course justice is also about exonerating the innocent; not simply about convicting the guilty.

Pace of investigations

Increasing pace was never going to be a quick win, and it isn’t. There are many reasons for this, some out of our control.  But some aspects are in our control: what material we take or ask for; how we interrogate it; the reasonable lines of enquiry we choose to pursue; the way we marshal our resources to overcome bottlenecks.  We can see the benefits and effect of this already although it will take some time to percolate through the bulk of our caseload.

I would like to mention a few other developments which have come into sharper focus since my initial address to this conference.

Firstly, the direction of travel for Deferred Prosecution Agreements: which is to use to the full the unique leverage DPAs give us to drive better corporate citizenship – in effect, to make better companies. You can’t put a company in jail.  DPAs are not only a way of incentivising cooperating companies and avoiding collateral damage to employees, suppliers, investors and customers – although they are very much that. But they are also a way also of ensuring companies admit their fraud and corruption and turn their attention to cleaning house.  A conviction and a fine do not reap the same benefits.  If companies violate the terms of the DPA, their admission of wrongdoing in the statement of facts can be used against them in a subsequent prosecution.  This is invaluable.

The agreement with outsourcing giant G4S earlier this summer was a step change—a DPA with teeth.  That DPA means that a major government supplier will be the subject of close scrutiny over the upcoming years to ensure its house stays in order and that UK taxpayers get the value they should from these very substantial contracts.

I can’t leave you without addressing Covid-19.  Clearly the pandemic created plenty of opportunities for criminals.  We in law enforcement are working across Whitehall together to assess and respond to this new threat.  We stand ready to take on those Covid related cases that are complex and require our multidisciplinary teams and working model.

As for our regular work, we kept at it. We brought charges in the GPT case and achieved our DPA with G4S over this period, and our Unaoil trial was one of the first to resume (mid trial) post-lockdown.  Reflecting on our experience will inform our ongoing efforts to build our resilience and make the best use of technology. 

Internally, we continue our work to change our culture for the better so that every SFO colleague feels empowered, valued and enabled to make their best contribution.  I am certain that these changes will improve and strengthen our ability to fulfil our mission: to make this country a dangerous environment for economic criminals and a safe and attractive place for businesses who follow the rule of law to thrive.  I look forward to working with you all to deliver these results—our country deserves nothing less.

Notes to editors:

  1. For more Symposium speeches, please see the Cambridge Symposium website.
  2. For more SFO news, please see the SFO website.