Law: Big Crimes That Need Big Solutions ; in Just Four Years, Rosalind Wright Has Turned around the Reputation of the Serious Fraud Office. but There's Plenty More to Do, She Tells Robert Verkaik - and Bent Lawyers Won't Be Exempt

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If first impressions count at all then it's difficult to regard Rosalind Wright as the hard face of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO). Britain's most senior female prosecutor possesses a disarming giggle and a penchant for chocolate biscuits - not qualities normally associated with tackling complex fraud in the City.

But as many blue-collar crooks will testify, it would be a mistake to treat Mrs Wright anything less than seriously.

Since Mrs Wright took over at the head of the SFO four years ago she has potted more than 135 con-artists, fraudsters and international money launderers. The SFO convicts nine out of every 10 defendants it prosecutes and takes on 20 new cases each year with a running caseload of around 80 at any given time.

During her four-year tenure she has even managed to turn around the negative publicity which left the SFO crippled with the nickname, the Seriously Flawed Office. This, she readily admits, has been one of the most challenging aspects of her job. Now Mrs Wright, a mother of three grown-up children, is ready to broaden her brief and take on more fraud cases.

She says she is concerned that so many police forces appear to be running down their fraud squads. "The sort of frauds that the SFO sees, which covers international fraud and money laundering and huge international corruption, don't figure in the police force's list of policing priorities except at the City of London." For this reason, says Mrs Wright, "you can't expect the police to devote a large amount of manpower to the problem."

In acknowledging the political reality, she suggests that fraud can be tackled by other means. One is to allow the victims of fraud to take civil action to recover their losses and another is to hand over more cases to the regulators. But Mrs Wright also sees a third way - letting the SFO prosecute more crime. "I'm ready to take on more cases," she says.

Legislation restricts the Serious Fraud Office to prosecutions of serious or complex fraud - this is interpreted as crime involving more than pounds 1m. While Mrs Wright is happy with these terms of reference, she says: "There is a lot fraud which falls within that category which is not coming to us at the moment, and unfortunately not being dealt with by anybody."

Mrs Wright, who once practised in the same chambers as Derry Irvine, has the kind of background in these matters that ensures ministers will listen to her proposals. At the Securities and Futures Authority (SFA) she led a team of prosecuting lawyers responsible for the authority's disciplinary function. Between 1983 and 1987, she was the Head of the DPP's Fraud Investigation Group covering cases in the City of London and Metropolitan Police areas.

As a lawyer herself, she says she can't help noticing that solicitors have become increasingly embroiled in international fraud. The National Criminal Intelligence Service has long suspected that lawyers have been helping international criminals launder the proceeds of their crimes. But so far very few cases have been successfully proven against solicitors.

Mrs Wright says the SFO is now investigating the business affairs of at least six solicitors in the biggest ever crackdown on money laundering in the legal profession. The lawyers are suspected of being involved in separate multi-million-pound frauds. …