The fight against corporate financial crime is in danger of being undermined by contentious reforms mooted by the new head of the Serious Fraud Office, investigators, lawyers and pressure groups have warned.

Fraud experts across the spectrum of prosecution and defence told the Financial Times they were worried that Richard Alderman, SFO director, would cut the number of criminal cases the agency brought against big companies and senior executives.

The criticisms – some of which are highlighted in a letter sent to Mr Alderman this week by four pressure groups – add to concerns about the future of the SFO less than two weeks after it announced the departure of a third of its senior management.

The swell of concern across the small world of financial criminal law highlights growing tensions since the arrival in April of Mr Alderman, a top tax investigator who was previously little known in the field of fraud and corruption.

One leading defence lawyer said: “The SFO is on a government-directed path to destruction.”

The letter to Mr Alderman – from Transparency International, Global Witness, The Corner House and Unicorn, the trade union anti-corruption network – says the pressure groups are “extremely concerned” that the SFO will be losing vital expertise and leadership on overseas corruption through the departure of Helen Garlick, the division’s head.

A number of lawyers and financial crime investigators have told the FT they are worried about Mr Alderman’s focus on consumer-type frauds, public education and ways of targeting suspects without laying charges, such as civil court asset seizures.

Some lawyers fear Mr Alderman’s reforms could fatally shift the SFO away from criminal prosecutions, as a precursor to winding it up or folding it into another body such as the Serious Organised Crime Agency.

People who know the SFO well say the flurry of senior departures – including James Kellock, deputy director – has sapped morale, particularly as there is as yet no clear plan for the agency’s future direction.

The SFO has enjoyed some high-profile successes in the past year, but it has come under fire over the length of time cases have taken and the scrapping in 2006 of the probe into alleged bribery by BAE Systems in Saudi Arabian arms deals.

Mr Alderman told the FT he had made no decisions on the direction of reform and was consulting a wide range of people within government and outside as part of a “pretty fundamental review of the SFO and our role in society”.

He said the SFO would retain a “major role” in prosecuting fraud and corruption, adding that he wanted to talk to the pressure groups about “misunderstandings” about its commitment to tackle overseas ­bribery.

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