The first ‘plea deal’ secured by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) will be formally agreed on Monday.
The deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) will conclude an investigation into the UK arm of South African lender Standard Bank.
The agreement already has sign-off from a senior judge, and the facts must be heard in open court.
This will happen before Lord Justice Leveson at the Royal Courts of Justice, when the terms of the agreement will be made public, the SFO said. It has been reported that the investigation concerned alleged bribery in Africa, though this detail has not been confirmed by the SFO.
City lawyers said the Standard Bank agreement is a substantial and high-profile debut for the DPA system.
Elly Proudlock, counsel in the white collar crime team at international firm WilmerHale, said: ‘This first DPA is perhaps punchier than most people were expecting. Rumours had been circulating that the SFO would proceed with a small company first, allowing it to test the process with relatively little publicity.
‘It will no doubt reinvigorate the SFO’s appetite for taking action.’
She added: ‘Leveson’s judgment is likely to contain important guidance for those seeking to enter into DPAs in the future, such as what constitutes cooperation.’
Barry Vitou, partner at international firm Pinsent Masons, described the agreement as ‘an early Christmas present’ for the SFO. ‘This is another important milestone for the SFO which has endured some criticism but of late has seen some big successes.’ However he said the ‘devil will be in the detail’ of the judge’s comments on Monday.
Standard Bank said: ‘The facts to which the DPA relate took place before the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China acquired a 60% majority shareholding in the bank on 1 February 2015.’
A second DPA may be concluded by the end of the year, SFO director David Green (pictured) has said.
The Treasury championed the use of DPAs under the last Labour government, though the agreements were introduced by the coalition as schedule 17 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which has been in force since February 2014. They remain a controversial enforcement tool, and differ from US-style plea bargains in requiring the endorsement of a court.
Critics of the principle argue that a quicker, negotiated sanction by the authorities risks investigations into wrongdoing being incomplete. Its champions observe that DPAs encourage corporate cooperation in investigations and allow results to be achieved by enforcement authorities using less resources.
The form of these DPAs reflect a deal struck on their shape by the Treasury and then attorney general Baroness Scotland in 2009.
Scotland said in an interview for the International Bar Association at the time: ‘You will know and have accurately assessed the culpability of the defendants, and you can express that at a fairly early stage.
‘Then at that stage there’s an opportunity for you to explore that and expose that to the suspect, the defendant and say, “okay, wake up and smell the coffee – this is where I’m going, I can dot every I, I can cross every T, if that’s what you want me to do, but you have an opportunity right now to accept responsibility if that is what you are minded to do, and we can deal with this issue early” – [saving] time, energy and money.’
Prosecution in these cases is ‘deferred’, as it may be resumed if undertakings made in the agreement are later found to have been breached.