Munir Patel was a clerk at Redbridge Magistrates Court, East London. Aged 22, he was paid an annual salary of about £17,000. It doesn’t seem to have been enough.
He also took in thousands of pounds from people who didn’t want to be prosecuted for driving offences. He helped his clients to forge documents and to avoid service. Some of them escaped prosecution (at least for now) but Mr Patel did not.
He was filmed by a hidden camera and now enjoys the dubious distinction of being the first person charged under the new Bribery Act, which came into force in July this year. He was also charged with the connected (and even more serious) offence of misconduct in a public office.
The maximum penalty for bribery is 10 years. The maximum for misconduct in a public office is life imprisonment. In the end, Mr Patel pleaded guilty to specimen charges of each offence and was sentenced on Friday. He will have received a big discount for the guilty pleas, which led to a sentence of 3 years for the bribery and a hefty 6 years for the misconduct offence, with the sentences running concurrently. See the BBC report here.
For a young man with no prior convictions and who might have made a worthwhile career, the effect of conviction and sentence will be devastating. But it is clear that the Court wanted to send a strong signal about the corrosiveness of even apparently “petty” offences. It didn’t help Mr Patel that he was an officer of the court, who held a position which, as the Judge put it, “had at its heart a duty to public confidence”. In the circumstances, 3 years for the bribery is at the lower end of my expectations, despite the guilty plea. The sentence might have been higher had there been no misconduct offence with the 6 years which went with it.
Among lawyers, campaigners and bloggers interested in anti-bribery law there were complaints that this “minor” case was the first prosecution under the Bribery Act. The Act is a very big deal in the corporate world and some wanted the first prosecution to relate to some major international corruption scheme.
But the offending in this case was hardly minor. Mr Patel seems to have been the instigator of a long-standing and sophisticated scheme from which he made a lot of money. The prosecution was brought by the UK’s domestic prosecution agency, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Major international corruption cases are in the bailiwick of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) and take years to prepare. It would be perverse (and probably unconstitutional) for the CPS not to take advantage of the higher sentencing tariff under the Bribery Act just because it might steal the thunder of the SFO on some future case.
The bigger cases will come along soon enough. In the meantime, this prosecution, and the attending publicity, will do a lot of good. It reminds us that bribery is not just something that happens “over there” and that it is a danger to British society as much as any other. It illustrates that the Act imposes high and consistent standards and is not mere cultural imperialism. It strengthens the rule of law at the centre of the justice system. These are results that any prosecutor can be proud of.
Eoin O’Shea is a partner and Head of the Anti-Corruption Group at Lawrence Graham LLP. His book The Bribery Act 2010: A Practical Guide was published in June 2011 by Jordan Publishing. He can be contacted here.