Aziz Rahman

Aziz Rahman

The legal lessons for business from 2017

Aziz Rahman, of award-winning solicitors Rahman Ravelli, looks at some of the business crime issues that have arisen in 2017 and explains what we can learn from them.

It doesn’t always pay to look backwards instead of forwards. But a quick look at some of the major business crime issues of the past year may tell us a few things that we would do well to remember.

In my first BQ magazine column, I emphasised the importance of challenging or negotiating with the authorities if a company is under investigation. In my experience of the biggest global corruption cases, this helps secure the best possible outcome.

Two high-profile cases in 2017 proved this. Rolls-Royce had been under investigation for years after compelling evidence came to light that it had used bribery to secure contracts around the world. At the same time, Tesco was probed over its overstating of profits in 2014 by £326m. Both companies escaped prosecution in 2017.

Instead, the authorities granted them each a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA). DPAs are a new area of work that we are already involved in and expect to grow. Tesco and Rolls-Royce each gaining a DPA meant that they paid a fine and agreed to introduce changes to working practices – but did not face criminal charges. This was largely due to both companies’ willingness and ability to negotiate and cooperate with the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) – something that any company should remember should it be investigated.

The SFO will make a decision next year on whether to charge any Rolls-Royce individuals, while three former Tesco directors have gone on trial; each charged with fraud and false accounting. This is a sharp reminder that individuals in a company that is investigated must seek their own expert legal representation. They will be treated as a separate entity to the company and will need to mount their own defence.

In a virtual re-run of the 2016 Panama Papers scandal, 2017 has seen the financial and tax affairs of 120,000 companies and individuals leaked in what have been called the Paradise Papers. It has brought non-payment of tax back into the headlines although it remains to be seen if prosecutions will follow. What this scandal does, however, is emphasise that those in business and finance now have far fewer hiding places when it comes to their financial dealings. Whether it be through data leaks or closer scrutiny by the authorities, financial wrongdoing is far likelier to be uncovered now than it was only a decade ago.

This is clear from 2017, which saw many banks across the world accused of money laundering. This year also saw the implementation of the Fourth Money Laundering Directive, which requires greater scrutiny of financial transactions across the EU. 2017 has also seen many countries announcing tougher scrutiny of those wanting to trade within their borders.

2017 has been a year, therefore, in which tighter regulation of business has continued at speed, with major bribery and corruption cases being brought against energy sector companies and massive fraud exposed in many business sectors as well as in the NHS and charities.

This is because business crime is increasingly being identified as a priority by the authorities. And that is why it is important for everyone in business to do all they can in 2018 to stay on the right side of the law.