The SFO has published its 5-year strategy document (the Strategy Document), highlighting a number of areas of focus, from international coordination with counterparts to capitalising on technology and incentivising their workforce.

This follows Director of the SFO, Nick Ephgrave’s, speech in February 2024 setting out key priorities (see our recent Investigations and Enforcement horizon scanning article here).

The Strategy Document highlights that fraud is now the UK’s most prevalent crime and poses a significant threat.  The focus on fraud is consistent with the SFO’s messaging over the past year, as well as the UK’s broader fraud strategy that includes the introduction of the new failure to prevent fraud offence (see our article here) and the Home Office’s Independent Review into challenges within fraud investigations (see here).

In addition to emphasising the focus on fraud, the Strategy Document sets out a number of focus areas through which the SFO hopes to meet its goal of fighting complex financial crime and deliver justice for its victims, in addition to safeguarding the UK’s reputation as a safe place to conduct business. These include:

1. Intelligence, enforcement and prevention.  The SFO has stated that it intends to use more fully the intelligence powers available to it to obtain evidence more quickly, allowing it to build compelling cases in shorter timeframes. This is not unexpected given the historically long-running nature of SFO investigations, and will presumably also include making use of its new powers to compel the production of information before opening an investigation in all cases, not just those of international bribery and corruption (see our blog post here).

Importantly, the SFO has again signalled that to enhance intelligence and enforcement, it is committed to exploring incentivisation options for whistleblowers, echoing Nick Ephgrave’s speech in February. No further detail on the options being considered is provided.

The SFO has also recently indicated that is preparing a new corporate enforcement policy in the interests of encouraging companies to enter into a dialogue with the SFO, and guidance on the expansion of corporate criminal liability in the UK.

Finally, the SFO has also indicated that it is pushing for reforms to the disclosure regime.

2. Taking a proactive and authoritative role not just domestically, but globally.  Despite the recent tone of pursuing more domestic fraud cases, the Strategy Document – and indeed recent public commentary from the SFO – emphasises that the SFO is still focussed on collaborating with key international partners to share information and intelligence, and also strengthening international anti-bribery efforts.

3. Harnessing technology.  The SFO has highlighted that criminals are exploiting new and powerful tools to commit financial crime, and reiterated that simultaneously it is conscious of capitalising on the opportunities provided by technology to combat economic crime.  The SFO is aiming to use new and innovative tools, focussing resource on work requiring human input whilst developing machine-learning and AI for mechanical and administrative tasks and streamlining its casework via a new case management system.  This is a key area of focus, given the SFO has separately recently admitted serious shortcomings in its present document management system which has impacted its ability to prosecute cases successfully.

4. Identifying, recruiting, developing and keeping high-calibre staff to ensure that it can keep pace with the demand for investigations.  The SFO has identified one of its greatest challenges as one of resourcing. To combat this, the SFO is seeking over the next five years to develop a five-year strategic workforce plan, which includes providing additional support to employees, preparing an overall benefits package and establishing an in-house academy to strengthen learning and development.

Companies can expect the SFO to be more proactive and to seek to streamline its operations, expedite its investigation process and look to find a variety of ways to encourage companies and whistleblowers to come forward.