Three years in prison for a £500 bribe...watch out directors and corporates!

23rd November 2011

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Legal history was recently made when a London court clerk became the first person convicted and sentenced under the Bribery Act 2010.  Mr Munir Yakub Patel was sentenced to three years for bribery and six years for misconduct in a public office following his admission of one count of bribery.  He admitted accepting £500 to avoid putting details of a traffic summons on a court database.  The prosecution believe he earned a further £20,000 by helping 53 offenders. 

In sentencing him the judge told the defendant his offences were a "very substantial breach of trust" and that a "justice system in which officials are prepared to take bribes in order to allow offenders to escape the proper consequences of their offending is inherently corrupt and is one which deserves no  public respect."  
Certain commentators have felt that the authorities have missed a trick here.  The big splash that could have hit UK plc with the first successful conviction under the Act being a high profile corporate conviction for failing to prevent bribery has been lost.  Some say that focusing on an individual and a fairly small bribe has sent the wrong message – that the system and the courts are more concerned with stopping misconduct in public office rather than changing any perceived 'bung' culture of British businesses and foreign companies operating in the UK. 

The practical reality, however, is that the Act has only been in force since 1 July 2011.  Undue payments given or accepted before that date will fall to be prosecuted under the previous anti-bribery legislation.  It takes a considerable amount of time and effort to investigate allegations of corporate bribery especially where the investigation requires mutual legal assistance from foreign authorities or an analysis of a considerable amount of financial data.  In comparison, the logistical arrangements in the case of Mr Patel were simplified by the fact that the conduct was entirely based in the UK and that he admitted the offence. 

In fact, the sentencing of Mr Patel can be seen as a useful steer on the courts' likely hard nosed attitude to punishing those found guilty of a bribery offence under the Act.  Three years for accepting £500 certainly sends a strong message.  Corporates who are found guilty of bribing another, accepting a bribe or failing to prevent a bribe being paid by someone associated with them, can expect similarly robust treatment especially where they have failed to self-report to the Serious Fraud Office or to co-operate with an investigation. Whilst corporates, as legal persons, cannot be sent to prison, directors and other senior officers who are involved can.  Companies can also be subject to unlimited fines and barred from tendering for public sector contracts should they be found guilty of a bribery offence. 

This conviction and sentence highlights the need for companies to consider the risks they face and to put in place proportionate policies and procedures designed to prevent bribery.  Failing to do so exposes companies to substantial reputational risks and the very real chance of a criminal investigation.  Companies cannot be complacent and should not take heart from the case of Mr Patel; the SFO has many corporate investigations underway and it is only a matter of time before the first high profile corporate conviction is secured.  

Financial Investigations Team

Members of our Financial Investigations Team, specialists in business crime and regulatory investigations, are well placed to assist you in meeting the requirements under the Act.  We have over ten years' experience in advising on bribery risk assessments, the preparation of anti-bribery policies and procedures and in developing training programmes. 

On training in particular, we have teamed up with a leading e-learning developer, DeltaNet, to launch a web-based training tool to help you and your organisation understand and comply with the key principles behind the Act.  It explains, with the use of audio commentary and animation including scenario-based learning and quizzes, what conduct is banned under the Act, what the penalties are and what can be done to limit the risks.  

We also have a suite of documents available dealing with anti-bribery policies and procedures which ensures that we are able to provide cost-effective advice to our clients.

Please visit Speechly Bircham's website or contact Rhys Novak on +44 (0)20 7427 6563 or rhys.novak@speechlys.com, for further information.

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