The SFO Handbook on Corporate Cooperation Guidance

16 August 2019
Author: JHA

Last week, the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) published a handbook on what it expects from organisations seeking cooperation credit in an investigation.  This is the first time the SFO has formally set out written guidance to clarify how they will assess cooperation and, as such, is a key reference source for any company navigating its way through an investigation or seeking to negotiate a settlement with the SFO.

Cooperation is defined as “providing assistance to the SFO that goes above and beyond what the law requires”. Examples of this include:

·        identifying suspected wrongdoing and criminal conduct together with the people responsible;

·        reporting to the SFO within a reasonable time of the suspicions coming to light; and

·        preserving available evidence and providing it promptly in an evidentially sound format.

Extensive guidance is given in the handbook on preserving and providing material to the SFO, the SFO’s aim being to ensure corporations collect all relevant evidence, maintain its integrity, and present it a way that facilitates the SFO’s ability to review it. Additionally, the SFO also encourages corporations to alert them to, and even provide them with, ‘material that the organisation cannot reach’ such as private or third-party emails and bank accounts. If corporations have such information and it is relevant, then they should, as a matter of course, seek legal advice on the sharing of personal data and data privacy.

Regarding industry and background information, the handbook suggests that corporations who ‘identify potential defences that are particular to the market or industry at issue’ would be deemed cooperative. However, the SFO’s appeal for the provision of information on ‘other actors in the relevant market’ could violate confidentiality clauses or result in questions as to how and why such data was obtained. Again, legal advice should be sought as a matter of course before providing disclosure on third-parties.

The guidance strongly encourages companies to consult the SFO before any individuals are interviewed or any action taken. Depending on the size and nature of the corporation and the issue at hand, this approach could prove difficult for companies to do while maintaining their business operations. This is only guidance; there is scope to discuss and negotiate with the SFO to ensure that commercial operations can continue as uninterrupted as possible.

Finally, the guidance emphasises that corporations should waive legal privilege on notes and transcripts of witness interviews to be deemed genuinely cooperative, with the handbook stating that if a corporation does not waive privilege, it could impact their eligibility for a Deferred Prosecution Agreement. However, corporations and their counsel will no doubt continue to battle with the SFO over access to such materials on the basis of legal privilege.

Despite all the examples of cooperation provided in the handbook, there is no guarantee that if a company follows them that this conduct will be taken into account in an investigation. Indeed, the handbook provides no examples of any actual benefits that cooperation could bring to a corporation. As such, while the report is useful in making clear what the SFO expects, it is not necessarily incentivising to ensure these expectations are met.

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