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June 10, 2011 10:00 pm

Hard act to follow

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Vivian Robinson

Top government lawyer Vivian Robinson at his home, a converted barn in Oxfordshire

Vivian Robinson is issuing a challenge to home secretary Theresa May. He is just weeks away from leaving the Serious Fraud Office, where he is first general counsel, and joining the London office of law firm McGuireWoods in August as a partner in its government, regulatory and criminal investigations practice.

But he is not going quietly. The government announced this week that it is to shelve plans to split up the SFO, which would have seen its investigatory functions come under a new national crime agency and the prosecuting functions covered by the Crown Prosecution Service. But buried deep in the literature accompanying the launch of the new National Crime Agency is a paragraph stating that the appropriate relationship between the Economic Crime Command, the SFO, the Financial Services Authority and the Office of Fair Trading will be reviewed “in due course”.

In effect, this means that the SFO’s future is still in doubt, and now Robinson wants the home secretary to clarify the situation – and urgently.

“It has been our understanding,” he says, “that the proposal to interfere with the structure of this office received little or no support from [May’s] colleagues and, if this is right, she should bury the issue by stating unreservedly that there are no current plans to alter this structure. Clarity is essential. This seems to fudge a most important issue.”

With the future still not assured, it will become increasingly difficult for the SFO to attract new staff – not least for the position of director when Richard Alderman resigns next year.

I first met Robinson in April, when we’d spent the afternoon discussing the new Bribery Act in the garden of his converted mid-19th-century barn in a historic English village near Oxford. At that point he was still firmly ensconced in the SFO, but the interview was overtaken by events following the announcement of his departure to McGuireWoods.

His return to the private sector caps a long and distinguished career in both the private and public camps. I had remarked when we met in April, that for a man who has been a leading QC (senior lawyer) for 25 years, Robinson still retains a surprising amount of faith in human nature.

“I can count on one or two hands the amount of people that I have defended over the years to whom I have taken an active dislike. I suppose you do see their best side,” he says, pouring coffee for himself and the photographer.

This even held true when, in his late 20s, Robinson was involved in the series of London gangland trials sparked by turf wars following the imprisonment of the Richardson and Kray gangs a few years earlier.

“The biggest of these cases was known as the Wembley Mob bank robbery trial, a series of robberies up and down the country,” he says. “It was known particularly for being the first supergrass trial.”

He pauses to sip his coffee while I munch on a homemade biscuit, and then launches into a story of how he once found himself waiting with a bank robber while the jury came to their decision. “I asked him if he ever came across someone robbing a bank and was in a position to take steps to stop him, would he do so? He replied: ‘Not in a million years.’”

In another case a robber was found guilty – not least because of the testimony from one elderly witness. “The man had run out of the bank with a bag stuffed full of money over his shoulder and ran past an old woman who subsequently appeared as a witness. And as he passed her, he said: ‘It’s a hell of a way to earn a living, isn’t it?’

“They were enormous characters these people,” Robinson says. “I wouldn’t say I liked them but they were perfectly agreeable and hugely interesting.”

Robinson and his wife Louise moved to their new house about three years ago, downsizing from a nearby Georgian rectory – a move that Louise still regrets.

A year after they moved to the new house, Robinson was appointed as first general counsel at the SFO. He had been involved in the serious commercial crime field for several decades, having been “briefed by and against the SFO really from the word go. This meant that when the job came up I was able to do it with the background of knowing the organisation very well from both sides.”

As the SFO’s in-house counsel, Robinson has had the key role of explaining the Bribery Act – which will see UK companies potentially liable for any bribes made on their behalf anywhere in the world.

Robinson is keen to downplay what he sees as a rash of “alarmist reporting about gifts and hospitality” – which provokes a wry smile as I help myself to another biscuit. “This had led a lot of people to think – wrongly – that this is the end of the business lunch, or the box at Lords. It doesn’t mean that at all.

“The guidance makes it clear that the government is not going to penalise proportionate gifts and hospitality – as long as it is proportionate.”

Which does, of course, beg the question of what is proportionate? I might take one biscuit, but what if I have the whole plate?

“There are a lot of factors by which you can gauge that,” Robinson replies. “You have to look at all the circumstances, the nature of the expenditure and the degree, and then look at the person to whom it is being given. You need to assess whether what was happening was simply part of good business relations to people with whom you already do business and proportionate to what they might expect. What you might give an Arab sheikh would be rather different to what you might give ... ” A journalist? I suggest. “Yes, exactly.”

Quite simply, he says, it comes down to common sense: “If you look at the guidance, the words ‘common sense’ come out time and time again.”

If only the government, I can’t help fail to think – and I’m sure Robinson would wholeheartedly agree – would apply the same logic for its plans for the SFO.

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