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Government decisions on fraud law reform

The Government has set out plans for a general offence of fraud which would replace the current patchwork of statutory crimes in English law to better equip police and prosecutors to deal with the challenge of combating fraud in the 21st century.20 Oct 2004

At present there is no one general fraud law in English law, but an untidy mess of eight specific statutory crimes (such as 'obtaining property by deception') and a vague common law offence of 'conspiracy to defraud'.

Scotland does have a common law crime of fraud, committed when someone achieves a practical result by a false pretence. Scotland also has a separate crime of 'uttering,' which is where some article – usually a document – is passed off as genuine towards the prejudice of another person.

Home Office Minister Baroness Scotland yesterday outlined the Government's response to comments received in its recent fraud law consultation.

The proposals are based on a new general offence of fraud which could be committed in three ways: by false representation, by wrongfully failing to disclose information and by abuse of position.

Baroness Scotland said:

"Fraud is a widespread and growing offence, estimated to cost the UK economy £14 billion a year. It is an alarming figure, and shows that fraud affects us all, even if we are not direct victims."

She acknowledged that the current statutory offences do not cover the range of frauds which can be committed or keep pace with modern technology.

Baroness Scotland continued:

"I am pleased that we have received broad stakeholder and public support for our consultation proposals. Our proposals will overhaul the law to simplify it, plug the gaps and make it easier to secure just convictions. The only major issue of concern was the repeal of the common law conspiracy to defraud, and we will meet that concern by retaining this crime, which underpins the new offences. When Parliamentary time allows, we hope to introduce a Fraud Bill to put these proposals into law."

Under the proposals, possessing equipment to commit frauds will become a new offence. The Government also plans to extend "fraudulent trading" to include non-corporate traders.

Commissioner James Hart, City of London Police, commented:

"[The Association of Chief Police Officers] welcomes the new general offence of fraud, its wider coverage for tackling fraudulent trading and the new offence of possessing equipment to commit frauds. The latter will be particularly helpful to police in addressing the common situation where we find suspects in possession of personal financial information belonging to others."

Commissioner Hart's final point is a reference to phishing – where bogus e-mails appear to come from well-known brands and lead recipients to bogus web sites, in an attempt to collect their financial details. OUT-LAW is organising a conference on the problem, including a speaker from the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit.

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