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What to expect from Ontario’s new Serious Fraud Office?

Ontario (August 29, 2019) – Ontario has set up a new anti-fraud unit. The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) is an initiative of the province to face complex, white-collar crimes. Thereby, the Ontario government pursues strengthening fraud prosecution and targets some well-known weaknesses in criminal law enforcement regarding fraud related incidents. Many fraud experts in the private sector have praised the project since its announcement. Now, it all depends on the execution.

On March 28, 2018, the Ontario government announced the implementation of the SFO in the province’s budget. The office is designed on the basis of a confidential report by former Ontario Court of Appeal judge Stephen Goudge in 2015. For the report, he conducted interviews with investigative agencies around the world. The squad’s task is to prosecute complex, white-collar crimes, which are too effortful to be investigated by single municipal police services. Additionally, the SFO’s structure is unique in Canada. Investigators and prosecutors work jointly on these complex cases.

By bridging policing and prosecution, the investigation is supposed to be more efficient, which shortens the law enforcement process to meet the 30 months-limit of the Supreme Court’s R. v. Jordan decision. As a consequence, the office is run collaboratively by an Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) – and a prosecution representative: OPP Superintendent, Kari Dart, is the new director of investigations for the SFO and Crown attorney, John Corelli, the SFO’s chief counsel. Moreover, the new fraud institution’s police staff is detached from daily police work. The independent staffing prevents shifting of resources away from fraud cases as soon as more prevalent public safety issues occur.

The launch of the SFO was accompanied by the praise of private sector fraud experts, and especially the auto-insurance branch, according to the Globe and Mail. They praise the specialization of the office as well as their long-term structure. Fraud Recovery Lawyer, Norman Groot, from Investigation Counsel PC argues from the perspective of a fraud victim and questions the SFO’s accessibility: “The primary point of interest for fraud victims will be what the thresholds are to report to the SFO, and how complaints to this new institution can be made. At the present time, it appears that cases handled by the SFO are only referred from police agencies”. Furthermore, he elaborates, “there is no transparency as to the kind of fraud cases they are being utilized for.”

Besides the innovative structure of the new SFO, it remains to be seen how the office is able to adapt and elaborate transparency and accessibility to be a real problem solver for Ontario’s severe problems with complex, white-collar crime.