R v Director of the Serious Fraud Office

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R (Corner House Research and another) v Director of the Serious Fraud Office [2008] UKHL 60

Investigation; corruption allegations; national security

(281 words)

Facts

The Director of the Serious Fraud Office started investigating certain allegations of corruption against a UK company. Among other things, the investigation included a high-value arms contract between Saudi Arabia (the company was their main contractor) and the Government. The company refused the disclosure of information requested by a statutory notice, claiming that such disclosure would put UK-Saudi relations into jeopardy. The Director continued the investigation and intended to look at certain Swiss bank accounts to find out whether there were any payments made to Saudi public officials. As a response, Saudi Arabia threatened to withdraw from its bilateral counter-terrorism co-operation agreement, among others, with the UK. The Director decided to give up the investigation.

Issue

The claimants argued that the Director should not have been influenced by a threat. The Divisional Court agreed and found that the Director failed to act and exercise his powers independently when he yielded to the Saudi threat and that he had thus damaged the rule of law. The Court held that surrender to a threat could only be allowed when no alternative course of action was possible. The Director appealed.

Held

The House of Lords agreed with the Director. The Director balanced the public interest in pursuing a bribery investigation with the public interest in protecting British citizens – i.e. the question of an alternative course of action should not have arisen. The court could only interfere with the decision of an independent investigator in extremely rare cases. In this case, it was clear that the Director was highly reluctant to discontinue the investigation. However, he made his decision (one he was legally entitled to make) on his own and was not influenced by others.

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