We admit to being stunned. Boggled, bowled over, dumbfounded, floored and flabbergasted (thanks, Roget's). We never expected the British High Court to disturb the U.K.'s somnolent status quo in the fight against international public corruption, by ruling that the Serious Fraud Office broke the law in dropping its investigation of BAE. After all, in the ten years since it became a party to the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials, Britain did not bring a single prosecution against overseas public bribery. Not one. History, as they say, was unanimous.
That's why we could write in December last year: "It's official. Britain's absence from the global war on public corruption is now a full-fledged scandal. Nearly ten years after the U.K. ratified the Anti-Bribery Convention of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), there hasn't been a single British prosecution. And as England shirks, its friends are both baffled and alarmed."
Other voices, we noted, had joined the chorus of condemnation. The Wall Street Journal said, "The OECD, which isn't prone to naming and shaming uncooperative member states took the unusual step of voicing 'serious concerns.' But that didn't move Mr. Blair, who warned the probe could harm relations with Saudi Arabia." The New York Times reported that during the OECD's recent tenth anniversary celebration of the Anti-Bribery Convention in Rome, its head, Angel Gurria, said "national security concerns — the reason Mr. Blair gave for terminating the BAE investigation in Britain — 'should not be used' as a reason for quashing bribery investigations. He also voiced concern that anti-corruption efforts were in danger of weakening. "
Who, then, could have predicted that on April 10, 2008, Lord Justice Moses and Mr. Justice Sullivan would reassert the authority of the U.K.'s independent judiciary? That they would reclaim for Britain and all common law countries the rule of law -- the simple idea that no man or woman is above the law -- an idea that shapes and preserves every great and not-so-great democracy on the planet.
The High Court's 46-page decision can be found here. It's a powerful, magisterial document, evidence of a court compelled at last to act as final arbiter of right and wrong -- to step forward, stand alone and draw a line in the sand. "No one," the court said, "within this country or outside, is entitled to interfere with the course of our justice." Strong words from officialdom in our politically correct, interdependent, terror-strickened world.
While the court's entire opinion is worthwhile, especially its brave conclusion, we particularly admire the Introduction. It is two parts John le Carré and one part Authorized Version. With simple but dramatic prose, it sets the tone for what's to come. It gives us character, place and plot -- and draws us into an irresistible detective story, where the search is not for the missing person or murderer or stolen jewels, but for . . . a legal principle.
Here's the Introduction:
1. This is the judgment of the court.
2. Between 30 July 2004 and 14 December 2006 a team of Serious Fraud Office lawyers, accountants, financial investigators and police officers carried out an investigation into allegations of bribery by BAE Systems plc (BAE) in relation to the Al-Yamamah military aircraft contracts with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. On 14 December 2006 the Director of the Serious Fraud Office announced that he was ending the SFO' s investigation.
3. In October 2005 BAE sought to persuade the Attorney General and the SFO to stop the investigation on the grounds that its continued investigation would be contrary to the public interest: it would adversely affect relations between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia and prevent the United Kingdom securing what it described as the largest export contract in the last decade. Despite representations from Ministers, the Attorney General and the Director stood firm. The investigation continued throughout the first half of 2006.
4. In July 2006 the SFO was about to obtain access to Swiss bank accounts. The reaction of those described discreetly as "Saudi representatives" was to make a specific threat to the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell: if the investigation was not stopped; there would be no contract for the export of Typhoon aircraft and the previous close intelligence and diplomatic relationship would cease.
5. Ministers advised the Attorney General and the Director that if the investigation continued those threats would be carried out; the consequences would he grave, both for the arms trade and for the safety of British citizens and service personnel. In the light of what he regarded as the grave risk to life, if the threat was carried out, the Director decided to stop the investigation.
6. The defendant in name [the SFO], although in reality the Government, contends that the Director [of the SFO] was entitled to surrender to the threat. The law is powerless to resist the specific and, as it turns out, successful attempt by a foreign government to pervert the course of justice in the United Kingdom, by causing the investigation to be halted. The court must, so it is argued, accept that whilst the threats and their consequences are "a matter of regret", they are a "part of life".
7. So bleak a picture of the impotence of the law invites at least dismay, if not outrage. The danger of so heated a reaction is that it generates steam; this obscures the search for legal principle. The challenge, triggered by this application, is to identify a legal principle which may be deployed in defence of so blatant a threat. However abject the surrender to that threat, if there is no identifiable legal principle by which the threat may be resisted, then the court must itself acquiesce in the capitulation.