Legal experts are warning that an onslaught of new cases is inevitable for the Serious Fraud Office amid the coronavirus-prompted recession.
“I envisage that much more serious fraud will be uncovered in the next six to 12 months. The SFO will be even more relevant than it has been before, post-pandemic,” says Sam Tate, a partner at RPC.
Another senior lawyer predicts healthcare, investment-related and price-fixing scams will be prominent: “We’re going to see a lot of pandemic-related fraud,” he asserts.
Are they correct?
We do not know, but experience tells us that where public money is made available with little by way of checks and scrutiny, some may be tempted to take advantage. Fraud offences are always serious and often attract lengthy prison terms, and it is, therefore, essential that we look at all cases individually.
Along the way, given the turmoil caused by the pandemic, and the anxieties associated with keeping businesses afloat, innocent mistakes may be made. Criminal defence lawyers need to keep this point at the forefront of their minds when approaching cases of this type; it is all too easy to judge with the benefit of hindsight when what is necessary is to consider what was happening at the time monies were obtained.
The primary offences are likely to be charged fall under sections 2 and 3 of the Fraud Act 2006. Both of these offences require there to have been dishonesty. A mere mistake is not enough.
In Barton and another  EWCA Crim 575, the court of appeal confirmed that the test for dishonesty is that set out by the Supreme Court in Ivey v Genting Casinos UK Ltd (trading as Crockfords Club)  UKSC 67;  1 Cr. App. R. 12.
The test for dishonesty can now be expressed in these terms:
‘When dishonesty is in question the fact-finding tribunal must first ascertain (subjectively) the actual state of the individual’s knowledge or belief as to the facts. The reasonableness or otherwise of the belief is a matter of evidence (often in practice determinative) going to whether they held the belief, but it is not an additional requirement that their belief must be reasonable; the question is whether it is genuinely held. When once their actual state of mind as to knowledge or belief as to facts is established, the question whether his conduct was dishonest is to be determined by the factfinder by applying the (objective) standards of ordinary decent people. There is no requirement that the defendant must appreciate that what they have done is, by those standards, dishonest.’
What is often not understood in the context of false representations (section 2 Fraud Act 2006) is that the definition of “false” incorporates the requirement that the person making the representation knows that the representation is, or might be, untrue or misleading. It is the defendant’s actual knowledge that matters, not what they ought to have known, or what a reasonable person would have known; but a person who wilfully shuts his eyes to obvious doubts as to the genuineness of representation that they are making and knows that it might be untrue or misleading.
The question of whether the defendant knew that the representation was or might be untrue or misleading is separate from the additional and essential requirement that the false representation is made dishonestly.
If you are under investigation for any fraud-related offence you must seek expert legal representation at the outset, our team not only understand the law but crucially the incredibly difficult trading conditions brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic. We will ensure that all actions taken are properly understood and placed in the correct context.
How can we help?
If you need specialist advice, then get in touch with Stephen Bunker on 0203 973 5773 and let us help. We can advise on a plea, defences and potential sentences in a wide range of circumstances.
[Image credit: “Six arrested in suspected £4m tax fraud investigation” by HM Revenue & Customs is licensed under CC BY 2.0]