Criminal fraud and the Covid-19 crisis
The pandemic that is Covid-19 is very real, as is the impact that it is having in every area of our lives.
As a result of the pandemic, courts have been unable to start any new jury or summary trials. With court closures and other restrictions in place, the criminal justice system is struggling to cope and so the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) have implemented a protocol for prioritising the charging of criminal cases, with the majority of fraud matters inevitably not a high priority.
The NPCC ‘Interim CPS Charging Protocol – Covid-19 crisis response’ sets out the way in which cases should be dealt with by the Police and CPS, identifying 3 categories:
- Immediate – Custody and all Covid-19 related cases
- High Priority Cases – Non-custody bail cases
- Other Cases – Released under investigation or no arrest required
Category A Immediate case type does include frauds by way of Covid-19 related offending. Considerations as to whether such offences fall under this category include the seriousness of the offence and likely sentence, risk of further offending and the protection of vulnerable victims. We have already seen many reports of scams arising from this current crisis, targeting people under the guise of assistance, offering everything from face masks to financial protection. The increase in these types of fraud which seek to exploit the pandemic will not be known for many months, even years.
All other serious fraud cases fall under Category C, where it is considered that such matters are “likely to clog up the court system if charged and actioned at this stage”. However, the protocol makes it clear that large, complex, investigations should not just grind to a halt and states specifically that preparation on these cases can continue and litigation work can be conducted, with defence representatives, ahead of charge. It is anticipated that this will shorten the process post-charge. Although further delays will usually be disappointing to those under investigation, a possible positive that they can take from a longer investigation stage is more time for persuasive defence representations to be prepared and submitted, perhaps leading to an increase in decisions not to charge. But we shall see.
What does all this mean for those under investigation? If the allegation is one of fraud or other ‘non urgent’ offences then there will be further delays, in circumstances where many individuals may have already experienced extended periods of delays in decisions being made. Inevitably this means that once the lockdown is eased and the courts re-open then there will be a backlog like never before, at a time when it was already difficult to secure fraud trial fixtures.
So what can we do during this period of uncertainty? We must keep preparing and maintain lines of communication with all involved.
At Byrne and Partners we continue to work as normal throughout these challenging times, working closely with our clients on ongoing and new matters.
Emmeline Coerkamp is a criminal litigation lawyer with experience of a range of white collar crime matters. She has expertise in defending criminal fraud prosecutions, particularly matters brought by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), as well as HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). She also has experience of confiscation proceedings.