The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) is not obliged to disclose further information relating to the collapse in December 2000 of the Equitable Life Assurance Society or to further explain its decision not to conduct a criminal investigation into the debacle, the First-Tier Tribunal has ruled.
In refusing a campaigner’s request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) for disclosure of all SFO records relating to the mutually owned life insurer’s demise that are not already in the public domain, the tribunal ruled that the public interest in disclosure was outweighed by the countervailing interest in maintaining confidentiality.
Although more than a decade had passed since Equitable Life’s closure without any criminal prosecution having been brought, the tribunal upheld the SFO’s plea that disclosure of its records could prejudice any future inquiry or investigation. The tribunal also noted that compliance with such a wide-ranging request for information would entail considerable expense.
Referring to the public interest in ‘safeguarding the investigative process’ and ‘the protection of a safe space for decision making’, the tribunal said that the insurer’s collapse had already been the subject of an independent inquiry and a report by the Parliamentary Ombudsman. The SFO had also disclosed a 19-page ‘vetting note’ summarising the reasons for its decision not to launch a criminal investigation.
Upholding a decision of the Information Commissioner to refuse disclosure, the tribunal ruled that there was no evidence of any public challenge or criticism of the SFO’s decision not to bring criminal charges and that there was a very considerable public interest in maintaining the exemptions to the FOIA – including legal professional privilege - relied upon by the SFO.