Once in every episode of the American cartoon series “Roadrunner”, Wile E. Coyote would be so fixed in pursuit of his eponymous prey that he would run off the edge of a cliff. There would follow a moment when through sheer will power Mr Coyote would continue the chase despite the road having disappeared from under him. Then, seconds before his body shot to the bottom of the ravine below, Mr Coyote would turn to camera with the realisation that he stood on nothing but thin air.
For decades, the enforcement authorities in the UK did not chase corporate corruption in foreign jurisdictions. As recently as 1999, a proposal for a Bill to create offences of international bribery and corruption was described in Parliament as “fundamentally naïve … about the way in which business is done in this country and around the world” (See House of Commons Debates 25 February 1998 vol 307 cc373-5). It was not until February 2002 that the Anti- Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 clarified that employing the services of a corrupt agent was indeed an offence.
But, for the Serious Fraud Office (“SFO”), it is not just the past which is another country, it is very much the present: the UK’s lead agency on issues of international corruption and bribery has set its sights on corporates’ overseas corruption, its appetite for the chase whetted by the remarkable success of its American enforcement cousins in the same field. Within a very short time period approaches that have previously been viewed with distaste as “too American” have been applied here with clear success. However, rumblings from the courts that things have gone too far too fast have become louder.