New SFO Boss Vows to Sharpen Up Act but It Won't Be Easy in the Hot Seat; the SFO Should No Longer Be Passive: Richard Alderman Is Promising a Shake-Up but It Is Plain That It May Be Nigh Impossible to Bring Prosecutions in Some High-Profile Fraud Cases

Article excerpt

Byline: JOSHUA ROZENBERG

THE Serious Fraud Office is thinking of abandoning the biggest prosecution it has ever brought. Dropping the case against several pharmaceutical companies accused of defrauding the NHS would mean writing off an estimated ?25 million in legal costs. But a contested trial could cost the taxpayer as much as ?100 million, achieving little even if the defendants were convicted.

Prosecutors ran into difficulties six months ago when the Law Lords ruled, in another case, that "mere price-fixing" without aggravating conduct was not an offence until Parliament made it so by passing the Enterprise Act 2002.

That led a High Court judge to stop the case against the drug companies in July, although there are still reporting restrictions in case the judge's decision is overturned.

The SFO announced immediately that it would be seeking permission to appeal and I reported here two weeks ago that the hearing was to begin on 3 December.

Now the SFO director has told the Evening Standard that the appeal might not go ahead after all. "I am considering whether or not to pursue an appeal to the Court of Appeal," Richard Alderman said in an interview. "I am hoping to take a decision on that in the next couple of weeks." Alderman confirmed that his lawyers were still working on preparing the case papers for the Court of Appeal.

"But I have not at the moment authorised the appeal. I am still considering that." It is known that defence lawyers have been trying to persuade the SFO to abandon the appeal and therefore the prosecution.

They point out that the chances of convictions are slim in the light of the Law Lords' ruling. Most of the defendants have settled civil claims brought by the NHS, although without admitting any wrongdoing.

Defence lawyers argue that the long delay amounts to an abuse of process.

The case is not ready for trial even though arrests were made three years ago in respect of allegations that go back a decade or more. …