Possible Reforms to Australia’s Approach to Corporate Criminal Liability: “Failure to Prevent”, Strict Liability, or Something Else?

Many of the most significant bribery offenses, both domestically and internationally, involve corporations. When, and under what conditions, should the corporation itself—as opposed to, or in addition to, the individual employees involved in the wrongdoing—be held criminally liable? The attribution of criminal liability is sometimes thought to be conceptually or philosophically problematic: As Baron Thurlow LC once observed, a corporation has “no soul to be damned and no body to be kicked.” Yet it is clear that corporations can do wrong, and the prospect, and extent, of corporate criminal liability can have significant impacts on corporate behavior. Various legal systems have developed different approaches, but in some jurisdictions there has been considerable dissatisfaction with the status quo, and agitation for reform.

Australia is one such jurisdiction. In response to concerns about the Australian legal system’s approach to corporate criminal liability (an issue that is important in, but not limited to, the corruption context), last April the Commonwealth Attorney General of Australia, Christian Porter, announced that the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC)—the Australian Federal Government’s highly influential law reform agency—would conduct an inquiry into this issue. The Terms of Reference required the ALRC to review, among other things, the policy rationale behind Australia’s current framework for imposing criminal liability on corporations, as well as the availability of alternate mechanisms for attributing corporate criminal liability. This past November, the ALRC released a 279-page Discussion Paper that thoroughly canvasses potential approaches to reforming Australia’s corporate criminal liability regime; the ALRC is currently receiving comments on that paper, which are due at the end of this month (January 31, 2020), and after considering these submissions, the ALRC will release its final report by April 30, 2020.

The ALRC paper covers many issues, but perhaps the most fundamental concerns the basic rules for attributing criminal responsibility to the corporation. The ALRC, and the Australian government, faces a choice among several plausible alternatives: Continue reading

Making Political Parties Liable for Corruption

When corrupt politicians are caught and convicted, they may suffer a variety of penalties, including fines and incarceration, and the government might also seize assets that were the proceeds of the wrongdoing. But punishing the individual politicians is not enough to deter wrongdoing or to compensate for the harm that the corruption causes. Moreover, even when an individual politician was the only actor who deliberately and intentionally engaged in corrupt criminal activity, that individual politician is not the only one at fault. Politicians’ decisions are affected by norms within a political party— for example, by expectations (sometimes unstated) that politicians will bring in a certain amount of money for campaign funds through graft.

For these reasons, political parties— in addition to the individual politicians— should be held liable for corrupt acts committed by their members in the course of their political activities or official duties. And such liability should attach even if the political parties’ leaders did not specifically know about or overtly endorse the corrupt acts in question.

This may seem like a radical suggestion, but in fact there are many contexts in which the law imposes so-called “vicarious liability” on organizations for acts committed by the organization’s members or agents. For example, the legal doctrine of respondeat superior (Latin for “let the master answer”) says that an employer (or other principal) can be held accountable for the wrongful actions of an employee (or agent), if the wrongful actions were within the normal “scope of employment.” Common examples include suing a hospital for the malpractice of one of its physicians or holding the government financially liable for wrongful conduct by law enforcement officers. (Although respondeat superior derives from English common law, other legal systems, such as those of Brazil and France have broadly similar concepts of vicarious liability.) Similarly, under the law of many jurisdictions, a corporation may be held liable (not only civilly, but also criminally) for acts committed by corporate employees—even if corporate management did not condone or even know about the criminal acts. These vicarious liability doctrines are important because a single employee frequently does not have the resources to redress the wrongs committed, and also because the employer often bears some responsibility for whatever the employee did, due to company culture, training, and incentive schemes. Because of this, economists point out that vicarious liability can be more socially efficient: The organization may be in a better position to detect and prevent wrongful conduct, so placing the liability on the organization can give it the appropriate incentives to take cost-justified measures to prevent the wrongful activity from occurring in the first place.

Although vicarious liability is a well-established legal principle, often used to hold employers responsible for the conduct of their employees, that concept has not yet been extended to hold political parties, as organizations, legally responsible for the corrupt acts of their members. Such an extension may seem radical, and in a sense it is, but it would be justified.

To make this case, I’ll apply the three-pronged standard that Black’s Law Dictionary lays out for respondeat superior liability to be appropriate in the employment context: (1) The individual was an employee when the occurred; (2) The employee was acting within the scope of his or her employment; and (3) The activities of the employee were a benefit to the employer. Continue reading

Are Corporate Anticorruption Compliance Programs Effective?

Requiring business corporations to institute an anticorruption compliance program should be a part of any national strategy to fight corruption.  The argument is simple.  Corporate employees or their agents are always on the paying side of a bribery offense and often a facilitator of conflict of interest and other forms of corruption.  Making it against company policy for employees or agents to participate in any corrupt act with stringent sanctions up to and including termination for a violation will help shut down the supply side of the corruption equation.

Even where a company’s compliance program is a sham, established simply to comply with the law, it can still help in combating corruption.  A sham program would be a violation of law, and were the company investigated, the existence of a sham program would be easy for investigators to spot, easing their task of determining wrongdoing.  So there seems to be no reason why lawmakers shouldn’t insist that firms subject to their law, whether state-owned or privately-held, establish a program.  And between the many guides published by international organizations (examples here and here), NGOs (here and here), academics, the burgeoning compliance industry, and the issuance of an international standard for such programs, there is no dearth of information on how to create and operate an effective one.

I have argued the case for a compliance requirement in several posts (examples here and here), as have many other GAB contributors (examples here and here).  My most recent plea for mandating private sector compliance programs came in this one noting such a requirement in Vietnam’s new anticorruption law.  But one thing I have not done is address two obvious questions about compliance programs that Matthew posed in a comment to the Vietnam post: How are compliance requirement laws enforced? How effective are they in practice?

It turns out these obvious, innocent sounding questions (the kind law professors always seem to ask) aren’t all that easy to answer.  What I have found so far follows.  Readers with more information earnestly requested to supplement it. Continue reading

The UK Parliament Should Broaden and Sharpen the Legal Advice Privilege in Order to Encourage More Internal Investigations into Corruption

On September 5, 2018, the compliance departments and outside counsel of large corporations operating in the UK breathed a collective sigh of relief. In a much anticipated ruling, the Court of Appeal of England and Wales overturned a trial judge’s order that would have compelled a London-based international mining company, Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation Limited (ENRC), to hand over documents to UK prosecutors investigating the enterprise for bribery in Kazakhstan and Africa. Those documents were the product of an investigation that ENRC’s outside legal counsel had conducted following an internal whistleblower report that surfaced in late 2010. In conducting that internal investigation, lawyers from the law firm interviewed witnesses, reviewed financial records, and advised ENRC’s management on the company’s possible criminal exposure. Though the company tried to keep everything quiet, the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) came knocking in mid-2011. The SFO agreed to let ENRC and its lawyers continue to investigate on their own, periodically updating the SFO on their progress. In 2013, ENRC’s legal counsel submitted its findings to the SFO in a report arguing that, on the basis of the facts presented, the company should not be charged. The SFO disagreed and launched a formal criminal investigation. But the SFO then also demanded that ENRC turn over all of the files and documents underpinning its report—including presentations given by the lawyers to ENRC’s management and the lawyers’ notes from their interviews with 184 potential witnesses.

ENRC refused to comply, claiming that these documents were covered by two legal privileges under UK law: the “litigation privilege,” which guarantees the confidentiality of documents created by lawyers for the “dominant purpose” of adversarial litigation (including prosecution) that is “in reasonable contemplation,” and the “legal advice privilege,” which protects communications between lawyers and clients exchanged for legal advice. The trial court rejected ENRC’s privilege claims, a decision that sent shockwaves through the English defense bar and spurred much criticism on legal and policy grounds. But the Court of Appeal reversed, holding that ENRC’s lawyers didn’t have to share the documents. The Court’s ruling relied on the litigation privilege, holding, first, that documents created to help avoid criminal prosecution counted as those created for the “dominant purpose” of litigation, and, second, that criminal legal proceedings were in “reasonable contemplation” for ENRC once the SFO contacted the company in 2011.

Many commentators have hailed the Appeal Court’s decision (which the SFO declined to appeal) as a “landmark ruling” and a “decisive victory” for defense lawyers. The reality is a bit more nuanced. The Court of Appeal’s fact-specific ruling was very conservative in its legal conclusions, and it’s unlikely that its holding regarding the litigation privilege is sufficient to create the right incentives for companies and their lawyers. It’s also unlikely that further judicial tinkering with the scope of the litigation privilege will resolve the problem promptly or satisfactorily. The better solution would involve a different institutional actor and a different privilege: Parliament should step in and expand the scope of the legal advice privilege to cover all communications between a company’s lawyers and the company’s current and former employees. Continue reading

Corporate Liability for Corruption in India: Some Notes on Reform

Last month, the Indian legislature passed sweeping amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Act. If accepted in their present form, those amendments portend a major shift in India’s antiquated legal regime pursuing corporate criminal liability, making it much easier to go after corporations on corruption charges. (The amendments make other changes as well, which I have discussed elsewhere. Here, I only focus on the changes that would pertain to corporate liability for corruption offenses.) The amendments do make some welcome changes, but they do not go far enough to update India’s antiquated legal regime for corporate criminal liability. I’ll touch on three features of this regime and discuss how the new amendments do or do not effect significant changes. Continue reading

Mixed Messages from the UK’s First Contested Prosecution for Failure to Prevent Bribery

In February 2018, the UK secured its first ever contested conviction of a company for “failure to prevent bribery.” Under Section 7 of the UK Bribery Act (UKBA), a company or commercial organization faces liability for failing to prevent bribery if a person “associated with” the entity bribes another person while intending to obtain or retain business or “an advantage in the conduct of business” for that entity. Following an internal investigation, Skansen Interior Limited (SIL)—a 30-person furniture refurbishment contractor operating in southern England—discovered that an employee at its firm had agreed to pay nearly £40,000 in bribes to help the company win contracts worth £6 million. Company management fired two complicit employees and self-reported the matter to the National Crime Agency and the City of London police. The Crown Prosecution Service ultimately charged SIL with failing to prevent bribery under Section 7. Protesting its innocence, SIL argued that the company had “adequate procedures” in place at the time of the conduct to prevent bribery; SIL, in other words, sought to avail itself of the widely-discussed “compliance defense” in Section 7(2) of the UKBA, which allows a company to avoid liability for failing to prevent bribery if the company can show that it “had in place adequate procedures designed to prevent persons associated with [the company] from undertaking” the conduct in question.

The case proceeded to a jury trial. The verdict? Guilty. The sentence? None. In fact, SIL had been out of business since 2014, so the judge had no choice but to hand down an absolute discharge—wiping away the conviction.

The hollow nature of the government’s victory has led some commentators to call the prosecution “arguably unprincipled” or even a “mockery of the UK criminal process.” Indeed, the bribing employee and the bribed individual had already separately pleaded guilty to individual charges under UKBA Sections 1 and 2, respectively, and the remaining shell of a corporation had no assets or operations. Other commentators pointed out that precisely because the company was dormant it would have been unable to enter into a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA), lacking assets to pay financial penalties or compliance programs to improve. Putting aside arguments about the wisdom or fairness of pursuing a prosecution in these circumstances, the SIL case sheds light on Section 7(2)’s “adequate procedures” defense. While the UK government has secured a few DPAs for conduct under Section 7—beginning with Standard Bank Plc in 2015—SIL is the first case in which the Section 7(2) “adequate procedures” defense was tested in front of a jury.

While the government argued that it prosecuted the case primarily to send a message about the importance of anti-bribery compliance programs, the UK government’s actions in the SIL case ultimately sends mixed messages to companies and may have counterproductive effects. Continue reading

It’s Time for China to Show Its Foreign Bribery Law is Not a Paper Tiger

In May 2011, China criminalized the bribery of foreign public officials. More specifically, the 8th Amendment to China’s Criminal Law, among other things, added Article 164(2), which prohibits both natural persons and units (i.e. companies and other organizations) under Chinese criminal jurisdiction from giving “property to any foreign public official or official of an international public organization for the purpose of seeking illegitimate commercial benefit.” This legislative action, intended in part to fulfill China’s obligations as a State Party to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, was considered an accomplishment given the under-criminalization of foreign bribery in Asia Pacific at the time. Many commentators devoted substantial attention to questions about the law’s meaning, including the definition of almost every term in the provision (“property,” “foreign public official,” “international public organization,” “illegitimate commercial benefit,” etc.—for a sampling, see here, here, here, here, here, or just search for “China Criminal Law 164” using any search engine).

However, almost seven years have passed, and nothing substantial has happened, except for some minor movements related to the law as observed by the media and commentators in some official and unofficial statements (see, for example, here, here, and here). Not a single enforcement action has been brought (or at least publicized) under Article 164(2). Even after President Xi Jinping launched in 2013 the most extensive anti-graft campaign China has ever seen, there have been no foreign anti-bribery enforcement actions.

There are several possible explanations for China’s non-enforcement of 164(2). One possibility, discussed previously on this blog, is that China’s traditional “non-interference” foreign policy might make China reluctant to go after transnational bribery; more generally, China might not be interested in devoting resources to fighting forms of corruption that don’t have domestic effects. Some have also suggested that China has little incentive to enforce its foreign anti-bribery law because bribery of foreign officials gives Chinese firms a competitive advantage in certain jurisdictions. It’s also possible that simple inertia is part of the story: It’s worth keeping in mind that although the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) was enacted in 1977, almost 80% of the FCPA enforcement actions (amounting to 95% of the total FCPA sanctions) occurred after 2007. Similarly, the UK Bribery Act came into force in 2011, but the first foreign bribery case under that act wasn’t resolved until 2014. South Korea enacted its foreign bribery law in 1999 but didn’t prosecute its first case until 2003, while Japan took even longer, enacting a foreign bribery law in 1998 but not bringing its first case until nine years later, in 2007. In fact, Transparency International observed in 2015 that about half of the then-42 countries taking part in the OECD Convention on Combating Foreign Bribery (to which China is not a party) have not yet prosecuted a single foreign bribery case since the Convention came into force in 1999. So China’s inertia is hardly unique.

Yet regardless of the reasons why China has not enforced its foreign bribery law, and regardless of whether this inaction renders China unusual or typical, it is now high time for China to start enforcing this law aggressively. Doing so is in China’s long-term strategic interests, for three reasons: Continue reading