New director, new strategy? The Serious Fraud Office publishes its five-year strategy

23 April 2024

Last week, the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) published its new strategy for 2024-2029. This identifies four strategic outcomes, by reference to which the SFO articulates various “outputs” that it wants to achieve. The outcomes are to:

  1. have a highly specialised, engaged and skilled workforce;
  2. be ready and able to harness the technology and tools of a changing world;
  3. combat crime effectively through intelligence, enforcement and prevention; and
  4. be a proactive, authoritative player in the global and domestic justice system.

In the detail behind these outcomes and outputs, there are some specific aims that may be significant for corporates and the general enforcement landscape in the near future, the following in particular. 

  • Whistleblowing – the SFO specifically says it wants to explore incentivisation options for whistleblowers, working with partners in the UK and abroad. This echoes support that Nick Ephgrave, the new director of the SFO, has previously expressed for a more US-style whistleblowing regime in the UK. The continued focus on this suggests there might be some material change in the relatively near future.
  • Disclosure – the SFO says it wants to push for a disclosure regime “fit for today’s challenges” and its 2024-25 business plan (which forms part of this strategy paper) states that the SFO wants to “respond to the changing disclosure environment”. References to focus on disclosure modernisation show the importance of the disclosure regime to the SFO’s handling of cases – this is an area that continues to present significant legal and practical challenges. In just the past couple of days, issues with the disclosure software used by the SFO have reportedly prompted the agency to launch a review of many of its historic and current cases, with potentially significant consequences.
  • Covert powers – there are multiple references in the paper to “covert” tactics, capabilities and powers that the SFO will seek to use more frequently. Fittingly, it is not clear precisely what these are. However, it seems the SFO has in mind adopting a more modern, sophisticated approach to investigating and prosecuting serious financial crime. As the scope of digital fraud increases (cryptoassets feature a lot in the paper) and as certain areas of crime become more complex, so too must the SFO’s investigation methods.

There are many other aspects to the paper that are welcomed, like the stated ambition to prepare for the deployment of new powers (such as the failure to prevent fraud offence) and to help corporates more easily self-report.

However, the tone and aims may seem familiar to many. It is unclear precisely what changes the SFO will seek to achieve in various areas, for example in relation to disclosure. Many of the reforms will likely require legislation, which cannot be guaranteed. This paper is therefore valuable reading to understand the general direction of travel the SFO will have under Mr Ephgrave. We will have to wait to see what achieving his strategy looks like in practice; and what impact it may have on the fight against financial crime in the UK.