SFO spending more on legal fees despite Government funding cuts

Agency’s legal spend soared between 2009 and 2012 in face of 22% budget chop 

The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) increased the proportion of funding it spends on legal fees by 31% between 2009 and 2012, despite the agency’s overall budget being cut by more than a fifth in that time.

In 2012 the independent Government department spent £4.5m on all legal fees, defined as a combination of counsel’s fees, solicitor’s fees and court fees for work on all criminal investigations and prosecutions, restraint and confiscation proceedings, and advisory matters.

The spend works out as 13% of its total budget of £34m. The fees for the year covered 42 separate cases, equating to roughly £107,000 per case. In 2009, the SFO’s spend on legal fees was £4.4m, or 10.1% of the agency’s annualised budget, which stood at £43.4m for the year. 

Since then, annual spend on legal fees has risen each year, while the SFO’s budget dropped by 22% to £34m between 2009 and 2012 when calculated on an annualised basis.

Since 2008 the largest amount spent on legal fees for one matter was £1.85m. During that period, the SFO led investigations into BAE Systems and Libor, and against the Tchenguiz brothers.

The figures, which came from a Freedom of Information  Act request by Legal Week, do not include a breakdown of fees paid to individual law firms, chambers, barristers or solicitors.

When instructing members of the Bar on prosecution matters, the SFO operates a panel of QCs and a three-tier system of junior counsel.

Legal fees also include civil litigation for internal employment and human resources matters, but do not extend to payments of any costs made to other parties.

“You’ve got to look at what the general attitude has been with Government budgets,” commented one senior source close to the SFO.

“[SFO director] David Green’s (pictured) approach has been to focus on everything being quality assured, but obviously there is a tension within that, between hiring the best people and then using external counsel.”

Related: Under-fire SFO revamps leadership team with new appointments.