International Corruption – High Court Backs Serious Fraud Office

The international fight against corruption in the commercial sphere requires mutual cooperation between friendly states, but a balance often has to be struck between the public benefit in the detection of crime and the individual rights of suspects. The High Court addressed that issue in an important decision that represented a significant victory for the Serious Fraud Office (SFO).

The case concerned a letter of request sent by the SFO to the authorities in Monaco seeking their cooperation in investigating corruption allegations against an oil company based in the principality and members of its senior management. The Monegasque authorities responded by raiding the company’s office and executives’ homes, seizing documents, computers and other property. Three executives were arrested and subsequently interviewed in both Monaco and the UK.

The company and the executives launched a judicial review challenge in London, seeking a quashing order in respect of the letter of request and the return of the seized property. It was argued that the common law duties of candour and disclosure that apply to domestic search warrants also apply to requests for mutual legal assistance (MLA) between states and that the SFO had breached those duties.

In dismissing the challenge, however, the Court rejected arguments that the SFO was under a heightened procedural obligation to ensure fairness. It noted that requests for MLA are governed by the Strasbourg Convention and the Palermo Convention, which set out a number of legal protections for suspects.

Such requests could not be equated with a blank cheque and the SFO was obliged to act in good faith. Monaco was a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights and the interests of the company and the executives would also be safeguarded in the ordinary way if the investigation culminated in a prosecution.