In a powerful affirmation of the rule of law, two justices of the U.K.’s High Court of Justice ruled in an April 10, 2008 opinion (here) that the British Serious Fraud Office (SFO) must reconsider its decision to discontinue its bribery investigation into the award of a weapons contract between Saudi Arabia and BAE Systems plc. My prior post regarding the BAE investigation can be found here.

The SFO announced its decision to discontinue the investigation in December 14, 2006. The investigation had been ongoing for some time and had even withstood a prior attempt in October 2005 to have the investigation stopped. However, in July 2006, apparently when the SFO was about to obtain access to certain Swiss bank accounts, the British government received “an explicit threat made with the intent of halting the investigation.”

In the proceedings before the court, the government refused to characterize the threat, but the opinion quotes news reports that what happened was that Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz of al-Saud “went to Number 10” and told the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff to “get it stopped” or the military weapons contract ‘was going to be stopped and intelligence and diplomatic relations would be pulled.” (Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2005, is now and in 2006 was the Secretary-General of the Saudi National Security Council.)

Following the July 2006 threat, an internal governmental review process unfolded, including high level consultations with the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia and others, culminating in a previously confidential December 8, 2006 memorandum by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair to his Attorney General Peter Goldsmith that “developments” had “given rise to the real and immediate risk of the collapse of UK/Saudi security, intelligence and diplomatic cooperation.” This, the Prime Minister said, would “have seriously negative consequences for the UK public interest in terms of both national security and our highest priority foreign policy objectives in the Middle East.” The government was particularly concerned with the Saudis continued counter-terrorism support, without which, it was feared, British lives could be in danger.

According to news reports (here), in August 2006 (that is, one month after Prince Bandar’s visit to “Number 10”), BAE won a $8.7 billion order from the Saudi government for 72 Eurofighter Typhoon warplanes, purportedly the latest component of the Al Yamamah arms deal, which dates back to 1985 and is the largest British export contract ever.  

The legal challenge to the decision to terminate the investigation was presented by two public interest groups, Corner House Research and the Campaign Against Arms Trade. They challenged the SFO’s decision to accede to the threat as “contrary to the constitutional principle of the rule of law,” as well as on other grounds. By contrast, the government argued, as the court summarized, that “the law is powerless to resist the specific, and as it turns out, successful attempt by a foreign government to pervert the course of justice in the United Kingdom.” (The court said of this argument that “so bleak a picture of the impotence of the law invites at least dismay, if not outrage.”)

The April 10 opinion was written by Lord Justice Alan Moses. After a detailed review of the background to the SFO’s decision to terminate the investigation, the Court considered the claimants’ challenge, which Lord Justice Moses said did not question the government’s assessment of the national security risk. The threat that was the basis of the decision to terminate the investigation “was not simply directed at the company’s commercial, diplomatic and security interests, it was aimed at its legal system.”

The threat was made “with the specific intention of interfering with the course of the investigation.” The court noted that “had such a threat been made by one who was the subject of the criminal law of this country, he would risk being charged with an attempt to pervert the course of justice.” Surrender to such threats “merely encourages those with power, in a position of strategic and political importance, to repeat such threats.” The court concluded that “in yielding to the threat, the [SFO director] ceased to exercise the power to make the independent judgment conferred on him by Parliament.” As a result, the court concluded that the submission to the threat was “unlawful.”

The court’s opinion reviews a host of other considerations, including in particular the U.K’s obligations as a signatory Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions (which specifies that investigations “shall not be influenced by considerations of national economic interest, the potential effect upon relations with another State or the identity of the natural or legal persons involved.”). But the court’s essential conclusion is that the decision to terminate the investigation was contrary to the principles of the rule of law. “It is difficult,” the court said,” to identify any integrity on the role of the courts to uphold the rule of law if the courts are to abdicate in response to a threat from a foreign power.”

The full opinion is lengthy but it is well worth the read. The details surrounding the government’s consideration of how to respond to the threat are fascinating, and the court’s analysis of the legal considerations involved is thought-provoking, particularly its consideration of how imminent a threat of loss of life must be before a court might consider yielding. The inherent tension in the court’s decision arises from the fact that this case tests the limits of what any government might be willing to risk in resisting corruption; the lesson the court rejected is that if the corrupt forces are rich and powerful enough, they have nothing to fear from the force of law.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the investigation will go forward in the end; the court did not rule that the investigation must proceed, only that the December 2006 decision to terminate the investigation was unlawful. According to an April 11, 2008 article in The Guardian (here), “the high court will reconvene in a fortnight to decide what remedy to award the two groups of anti-corruption campaigners who brought the judicial review of the Serious Fraud Office decision to end the inquiry.”

As I have noted in a number of prior posts, most recently here, many governments around the world (including the U.S. government) are increasingly committed to enforcing anti-corruption laws. BAE is also being investigated in the U.S. and in Switzerland, and is only one of several current high-profile corruption investigations. The April 10 opinion underscores the seriousness of the issues involved, as well as the stakes. Courts will continue to grapple with the challenges these cases present, but it is important for companies to understand that the risks involved with corrupt practices include the threat of civil litigation, as I discussed here. BEA is in fact already the target of a shareholders’ derivative lawsuit in the United States. The growing threat of this type of litigation suggests why corrupt activity may represent the “next corporate scandal.”

Press coverage of the April 10 decision can be found here and here. The FCPA Blog’s post on the decision can be found here.

Subprime Litigation Webcast: On Friday April 11, 2008, at 11:00 a.m., I will be a panelist on a webcast sponsored by Risk Metrics on the topic “Subprime Litigation and Liability.” The panel will be moderated by Adam Savett, author of the Securities Litigation Watch blog, and will include defense attorney Darryl Rains, of the Morrison and Foerester firm, and plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Lebovitch, of the firm Bernstein, Litowits, Berger & Grossman. Registration for the webcast (which is free) can be accessed here. Further information, including links to background papers by Risk Metrics, can be accessed on the Securities Litigation Watch, here.