Easy as one QC?
Last June the de Grazia report slammed the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) for its low conviction rates and unfocused investigations, recommending, among other things, the appointment of a general counsel to oversee its team of 60 lawyers.Cue a period of soul-searching, the departure of former director Robert Wardle - replaced by Richard Alderman - and a recruitment process for the SFO's first ever GC, culminating in the arrival of leading criminal silk Vivian Robinson QC from QEB Hollis Whiteman chambers. Robinson, who will not formally take up his role until 14 April due to outstanding commitments, is making regular trips to the SFO's Holborn headquarters - conveniently located around the corner from QEB's building in the Temple - to familiarise himself with the challenges that lie ahead.
The Serious Fraud Office’s first general counsel will have a tough job winning over the organisation’s critics. Alex Aldridge talks to Vivian Robinson QC about the role
Last June the de Grazia report slammed the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) for its low conviction rates and unfocused investigations, recommending, among other things, the appointment of a general counsel to oversee its team of 60 lawyers.
Cue a period of soul-searching, the departure of former director Robert Wardle – replaced by Richard Alderman – and a recruitment process for the SFO’s first ever GC, culminating in the arrival of leading criminal silk Vivian Robinson QC from QEB Hollis Whiteman chambers.
Robinson, who will not formally take up his role until 14 April due to outstanding commitments, is making regular trips to the SFO’s Holborn headquarters – conveniently located around the corner from QEB’s building in the Temple – to familiarise himself with the challenges that lie ahead.
“I want to hit the ground running,” says the 64-year-old, clearly relishing the prospect of his new job.
Called to the Bar in 1967 after graduating with a law degree from Cambridge, the Yorkshire-born Robinson has enjoyed a distinguished career as a barrister specialising chiefly in criminal fraud. He took silk in 1986, the same year in which he became a recorder in the Crown Court, and has worked with the SFO – both prosecuting on its behalf and defending against it – throughout the whole of its 20-year existence.
“That has given me a decent feel for the way fraud trials have operated – and the way I think they should operate,” he says.
Robinson insists that his own dealings with the SFO have been positive, but admits that he knows others who have not had the same experience. He continues: “I am aware that the organisation is not all sweetness and light.”
So how will Robinson deal with the stinging de Grazia criticisms?
“I see improving expedition as one of the main features – if not the main feature – to be addressed. From my point of view, that will mean keeping investigations under very strict and regular review,” he responds.
While Robinson refuses to make specific comments about the SFO’s controversial investigation into alleged bribes paid by BAE Systems to secure Saudi contracts, it does not appear to be far from his mind as he adds: “The SFO should be seen in all major cases to be taking swift and sensible decisions. And where it’s appropriate not to proceed, it needs to make such a decision with minimal foot-dragging.”
As someone whose expertise lies in advocacy, rather than the investigation and case preparation work in which the SFO’s lawyers specialise, Robinson accepts that he will have to learn quickly. He is, however, confident in his ability to do so, emphasising his adaptability, honed through years of thinking on his feet as an advocate and various extra-curricular adventures, including a trip in a Bedford van from London to Pakistan in his younger days.
Alongside overseeing all casework, Robinson will fulfill an ambassadorial role with a brief to encourage more proactive engagement with the professional bodies and associations involved in prosecuting serious fraud, both domestically and on an international scale.
“One of the major parts of my job will be to liaise with the Bar, the solicitor’s profession, the police, the various professional bodies…the stakeholders, is the term,” he explains, slipping uncomfortably into corporate jargon – something that does not roll easily off the tongue of this courtroom veteran.
Management-speak may not be his thing, but Robinson is no stranger to responsibility, having served as head of chambers at QEB for six years. He hopes to draw on this experience in the other main part of his new role: sitting on the SFO’s board – an element of the job that he is particularly looking forward to.
“Having a say in running the SFO is one of the reasons I took the job. And now that problems have been identified, recognised from within and are being acted upon, I honestly believe I have a lot to offer,” he says.
But how much effect will one individual have? Robinson’s appointment aside, the SFO has no immediate plans to bolster its legal team. And by himself, the question remains whether Robinson will be able to alter a culture described in a draft version of the de Grazia report (leaked to the The Sunday Times earlier this month) as “a bit of an old boys’ club”.
On this, Robinson defers to SFO press officer Sam Jaffa: “The question isn’t necessarily numbers, but how to use our limited resources better and improve training to make our lawyers more flexible.” He adds that the time it takes to decide whether or not to proceed with a case is now down to one month from a previous average of six.
Given that Robinson has not started the job yet, it is difficult to get a picture of how things will work in practice. Robinson – who has arrived directly from trying a case in Southwark Crown Court – admits to knowing “no more than what I’ve read in the papers” about current high-profile SFO investigations like the enquiry into the UK impact of the alleged multi-billion-dollar fraud of US hedge fund manager Bernard Madoff.
What is clearer is that this affable QC, described in the Chambers and Partners guide as “good at rolling up his sleeves and getting stuck into the case”, will need persistence if he is to successfully transform the SFO’s legal function.
Career timeline: Vivian Robinson QC
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