Whatever the headline figures being quoted, the cost and effects of fraud and business crime will again represent a massive portion of the economy in 2015, as it did last year and the year before that. Whether I am providing accounting assistance to the police, criticising a prosecutor’s report or helping a victim of fraud to trace their losses, I hope the role of the independent forensic accountant continues to be valued where business crime is involved.
If not fraud and crime, a forensic accountant would have to look to other areas of financial dispute for their income, such as divorce proceedings, claims for injury compensation and civil business arguments. Anybody working in the criminal arena must be prepared to take on publicly funded work, where fees are the target of on-going austerity measures designed to restore the UK’s economy. Although I, along with senior criminal lawyers and other expert forensic accountants strive to make a comfortable living, there is substantial pressure on earnings such that many practitioners would be forgiven for shifting their attention to civil cases in the private sector. Already major complex fraud trials are being stayed because defendants are unable to secure the services of sufficiently experienced barristers, a direct result of the funding cutbacks.
The criminal defence industry has seen substantial reductions in funding levels in the past, most recently with a whopping 30% being shaved off the lawyers’ and experts’ fees around a year ago. I have been accepting criminal defence instructions for over twenty years, seeing the hourly rate dwindle in real terms to at least half of what it was when I first started. Twenty years on, I consider myself to be eminently more valuable now. To survive, and even prosper, I have gravitated through the ranks of some of the major accountancy firms ending up with my own firm that can better afford to carry out the work. However, this only solves the funding pressures if I am increasingly efficient in my approach to criminal defence cases, and ensure that I also have a portfolio of higher paying private work to balance the books.
The hope is that as the economy recovers, it is the issue of efficiency and waste that is addressed within the public sector, and that cost effective expert services are once again properly funded. I was instructed to attend court twice on two occasions last year to give evidence for the Crown. Both times I was turned away because the trial was stayed – for reasons that were easily avoidable. I was paid for my time and expense for traveling to Cardiff, but while I might moan about the amounts received this is clearly an example of wasted public funding!
As we move into 2015, I anticipate many fresh criminal defence instructions and expect to be able to deliver high quality reports that will assist either the prosecution or the defence team with obtaining a fair and balanced result in each matter. In addition there will hopefully continue to be a goodly proportion of private clients and civil matters where claimants or respondents alike will demand the highest quality of service and therefore be prepared to pay accordingly. However, I think I will continue to gain the most satisfaction from criminal fraud defence and money laundering assignments, as it is this area of highly adversarial work that I believe often needs the calming influence of an independent party.
Speaking of the value of my independence, one of the more refreshing developments I have noticed recently is being asked on a number of occasions to carry out “logic” reviews on cases being brought by the Crown. For example, on one occasion I was asked by the investigating officer to see if he had been “barking up the wrong tree”! I am happy to say that he hadn’t, but there were issues that needed further clarification, and I was glad that a contribution to a worthwhile prosecution was made in this case. As I confirmed in my research carried out some years ago for my Masters Degree in Fraud Investigation, the hourly cost of an independent expert forensic accountant and the real cost of a police officer is broadly similar.