The bribery act is just over a year old, but legal history was recently made when a London court clerk became the first person convicted and sentenced to 3 years imprisonment under the Bribery Act 2010 for a £500 bribe. Mr Munir Patel was sentenced to three years for bribery and six years for misconduct in a public office following his admission of one count of bribery. He admitted accepting £500 to avoid putting details of a traffic summons on a court database. The prosecution believe he earned a further £20,000 by helping 53 offenders.
In sentencing him the judge told the defendant his offences were a “very substantial breach of trust” and that a “justice system in which officials are prepared to take bribes in order to allow offenders to escape the proper consequences of their offending is inherently corrupt and is one which deserves no public respect.”
Certain commentators have felt that the authorities have missed an opportunity. The news of the first successful conviction under the Act being a high profile corporate conviction for failing to prevent bribery has been lost. Some say that focusing on an individual and a fairly small bribe has sent the wrong message – that the system and the courts are more concerned with stopping misconduct in public office rather than changing any perceived ‘bung’ culture of British businesses and foreign companies operating in the UK.
The sentencing of Mr Patel can be seen as a useful steer on the courts’ likely hard nosed attitude to punishing those found guilty of a bribery offence under the Act. Three years for accepting £500 certainly sends a strong message. Corporates who are found guilty of bribing another, accepting a bribe or failing to prevent a bribe being paid by someone associated with them, can expect similarly robust treatment especially where they have failed to self-report to the Serious Fraud Office or to co-operate with an investigation. Whilst corporates, as legal persons, cannot be sent to prison, directors and other senior officers who are involved can. Companies can also be subject to unlimited fines and barred from tendering for public sector contracts should they be found guilty of a bribery offence.
This conviction and sentence highlights the need for companies to consider the risks they face and to put in place proportionate policies and procedures designed to prevent bribery. Failing to do so exposes companies to substantial reputational risks and the very real chance of a criminal investigation. Companies cannot be complacent and should not take heart from the case of Mr Patel; the SFO has many corporate investigations underway and it is only a matter of time before the first high profile corporate conviction is secured.