Yesterday, in a much anticipated development, the United Kingdom Ministry of Justice released (here) its long awaited guidance (here) as to the U.K. Bribery Act – a delayed law now set to go live on July 1, 2011.

The U.K. Serious Fraud Office, the U.K. law enforcement agency tasked with enforcing the Bribery Act, also issued a release (here) and prosecuting guidance (here).

In this guest post, Robert Amaee (the former Head of Anti-Corruption and Proceeds of Crime Unit at the U.K. Serious Fraud Office and current counsel with Covington & Burling LLP in London – see here) provides insight and analysis of the U.K. developments.

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The Bribery Act: Countdown to Implementation

The UK Ministry of Justice yesterday published its long awaited Bribery Act 2010 (the “Bribery Act”) guidance entitled “Guidance about procedures which relevant commercial organisations can put in place to prevent persons associated with them from bribing (section 9 of the Bribery Act 2010).” This publication marks the official start of a ninety day countdown to the implementation of the Bribery Act which will now be brought into force on 1 July 2011.

Companies that already have reviewed and updated their anti-bribery and corruption procedures will be ahead of the game but will still need to study the new guidance to see what, if any, further amendments may be required. Those who have yet to complete the process of updating their procedures to ensure compliance no doubt will draw a modicum of comfort from the fact that they have a further ninety days in which to digest and absorb the guidance and implement the necessary policies and procedures.

The comments made by the Minister of Justice, Ken Clarke QC MP, and the guidance itself aim to reassure companies that the Bribery Act will be enforced with common sense and pragmatism.

The Minister of Justice ushered in the guidance by saying that “[t]he ultimate aim of [the Bribery Act] is to make life difficult for the minority of organizations responsible for corruption, not to burden the vast majority of decent and law-abiding businesses.”

That is a message that prosecutors at the UK Serious Fraud Office (“SFO”) — the organisation tasked with leading enforcement efforts under the Bribery Act — have espoused for some time. What is less clear is whether the guidance provides any tangible assistance on some of the Bribery Act’s thorniest issues such as the UK’s jurisdiction over non-UK registered companies, the extent of liability for the actions of third parties and the boundary between acceptable corporate hospitality and a prosecutable bribe, particularly when foreign officials are concerned.

Government Policy and the Section 7 Corporate Offence

The guidance, as expected, focuses on six high level principles which companies will need to familiarise themselves with and which are supported by 11 case studies. It also sets out the Government policy in relation to the section 7 corporate offence stating that “[t]he objective of the [Bribery] Act is not to bring the full force of the criminal law to bear upon well run commercial organisations that experience an isolated incident of bribery on their behalf” and recognises that “no bribery prevention regime will be capable of preventing bribery at all times.” This part of the guidance already has attracted criticism from some respected quarters. (See here).

The guidance deals with the section 1 offences of bribing another person but the most noteworthy commentary relates to the section 6 offence (Bribery of foreign public officials). This section highlights the fact that bribery of a foreign public official could be prosecuted under the section 1 offence but that evidential difficulties in proving that a bribe was paid to a foreign public official with the intention to induce him or her to perform his or her role “improperly”, something the guidance calls “a mischief”, means that prosecutors would seek to rely on the section 6 offence which needs no such proof. The guidance goes on to make a number of assertions in relation to the interpretation of section 6 which bear closer scrutiny. The guidance says “…it is not the Government’s intention to criminalise behaviour where no such mischief occurs…” In other words it appears that the guidance may be advocating that the concept of “improper performance” be read into section 6. What is clear is that Parliament did not include any such wording in section 6 in clear contrast to section 1.

Corporate Hospitality and other Business Expenditure

In addressing the topic of corporate hospitality and other business expenditures, the guidance adopts what can only be described as a permissive tone. It codifies the comments that the Minister of Justice has made over the last few weeks and states that “[b]ona fide hospitality and promotional, or other business expenditure which seeks to improve the image of a commercial organisation, better to present products and services, or establish cordial relations, is recognised as an established and important part of doing business and it is not the intention of the Act to criminalise such behaviour” and goes on to endorse “reasonable” and “proportionate” hospitality and business expenditure.

In determining what is reasonable and proportionate, the guidance proposes taking into account “all of the surrounding circumstances” which include matters such as “the type and level of advantage offered, the manner and form in which the advantage is provide, and the level of influence the particular foreign public official has over awarding business”. It states that “the more lavish the hospitality or the higher the expenditure in relation to travel, accommodation or other similar business expenditure provided to a foreign public official, then, generally, the greater the inference that it is intended to influence the official to grant business or a business advantage in return.”

Much of this is elementary and already part of the mantra of compliance departments but the guidance goes further and appears to give the green light to certain interactions with foreign public officials which would, today, be closely and critically scrutinised by those responsible for compliance. As an example, the guidance envisages that the provision of flights, airport to hotel transfers, hotel accommodation, “fine dining” and tickets to an event for a foreign public official and his or her spouse are “unlikely to raise the necessary inference” to engage section 6 and therefore unlikely to violate the Act so long as there is a business rational for the trip.

A Question of Jurisdiction

The guidance makes it clear that “the courts will be the final arbiter as to whether an organisation ‘carries on a business’ in the UK taking into account of the particular facts in individual cases” and sets out the “Government’s intention” in relation to the phrase “carries on a business, or part of a business in the United Kingdom.” The thrust of the approach appears to be a reliance on a “common sense approach.”

In cases where there may be dispute, the guidance again defers to the courts as the final arbiter but says that “… the Government anticipates that applying a common sense approach would mean that organisations that do not have a demonstrable business presence in the United Kingdom would not be caught.” That much is uncontroversial but what follows has elicited a great deal of comment. The guidance states that “[t]he Government would not expect, for example, the mere fact that a company’s securities have been admitted to the UK Listing Authority’s Official list and therefore admitted to trading on the London Stock Exchange, in itself, to qualify that company as carrying on a business or part of a business in the UK and therefore falling within the definition of a ‘relevant commercial organisation’ for the purposes of section 7.” This commentary has been welcomed in some quarters but has been criticised by some as undermining the concept of a level playing field. (See here).

In the vast majority of cases, it will be clear whether a company is or is not carrying on a business or part of a business in the UK. There will, however, be cases where there is room for debate. If, for example, a non-UK registered company sets up a joint venture with a UK company and the joint venture is not registered in the UK, is the non-UK registered company carrying on a business or part of a business in the UK? What if the non-UK registered company then seconds an employee to work at the UK partner’s offices in London looking after the joint venture – is the non-UK registered company carrying on a business or part of a business in the UK? What if it sends 5 employees? Those are the type of intricacies that need to be worked through by company advisors and in the worst case prosecutors and the courts.

Associated Persons

When considering the potential liability imposed on a company by virtue of its supply chains or its involvement in a joint venture, the guidance introduces the concept of “the level of control”– a concept that does not appear in the Bribery Act — as one of the “relevant circumstances” that would be taken into account when seeking to determine if the person creating liability can be deemed to be an “associated person” i.e. someone who is performing services for or on behalf of a company that falls within the UK’s jurisdiction. The guidance states that “[t]he question of adequacy of bribery prevention procedures will depend in the final analysis on the facts of each case, including matters such as the level of control over the activities of the associated person and the degree of risk that requires mitigation.”

Facilitation Payments

In the run up to the publication of the guidance, there had been some suggestion that there may an attempt to ‘soften’ the approach to facilitation payments. This is not at all the case. While the Government has recognised the problems faced by commercial organisations in some parts of the world and in certain sectors, the guidance reiterates that there are no exemptions in the Act and sets out the OECD position that facilitation payments are corrosive and that exemptions create artificial distinctions that are “difficult to enforce, undermine corporate anti-bribery procedures, confuse anti-bribery communication with employees and other associated person, perpetuate an existing ‘culture’ of bribery and have the potential to be abused.” In circumstances where an individual has no alternative but to make a facilitation payment in order to “protect against loss of life, limb or liberty”, the guidance states that “the common law defence of duress is very likely to be available”. It stresses that it is a matter for prosecutorial discretion whether to prosecute an offence and defers to the Joint Prosecution Guidance when it comes to the “prosecution of facilitation payments.”

Conclusion

Companies will of course be pleased to have more guidance and will look to draw as much comfort as they can from the more ‘permissive’ tone of the MoJ guidance but global companies will not be looking at their UK exposure in isolation and will certainly not be rushing to relax their anti-bribery and corruption policies and procedures. It is not much comfort for a company to avoid prosecution in the UK for interactions with foreign government officials for example but to be in violation of their industry codes of conduct or be called to account in a US court for that same conduct. Global companies will continue to be mindful of their global exposure.