Can design help to convict a criminal?

Convince a jury? The SFO’s graphics unit thinks it can

If you recognise the name Joyti De-Laurey, it’s probably because of her infamous fall from grace in 2004. De-Laurey was the secretary at investment bank Goldman Sachs who was convicted of defrauding her employer to the tune of nearly £4.5m.

Unsurprisingly, her trial was headline news and – while she began a seven year sentence – her story was even televised in a documentary on the bbc. What’s not so widely known about this high profile case is that, alongside the City of London police team who investigated it and the counsel who presented it to the jury, a vital role was also played by a team of graphic designers based at the Serious Fraud Office in London.

Graphics has had its own department at the sfo since 1999. It’s remained a small team since its inception – currently Matthew Kettless and Berlise De Jager, who report to the head of accountancy and sfo assistant director, Stephen Low – but the unit works on around 20 cases a year that require diagrams, illustrations, graphs and flowcharts to help simplify the often highly complex evidence being put before the jury in a fraud trial.

The sfo itself was set up as a result of the Criminal Justice Act of 1987, which had been instigated by the Fraud Trials Committee Report – ‘the Roskill Report’ – published by Lord Roskill a year earlier. By the mid-80s it was felt that, increasingly, fraud cases were not being prose­cuted, or even investigated, because it was too di∞cult to do so within the confines of the Criminal Justice System. The sfo’s raison d’être, therefore, was solely to concentrate on the most serious of fraud cases in the UK and, by the turn of the millennium, it was deemed that graphic design would be key to ensuring more convictions.

“We recognised early on that we needed to get over what were often very complicated situations and transactions to a jury,” says Low, “so we knew we needed a graphics facility. The earliest use of graphics that I can think of was at the second Brinks Mat robbery trial in the late 80s.” These days, the graphics department of the sfo is no longer a support unit but, rather, a vital part of every case that comes in.

“We ask the case teams to come to us as early as possible,” says Kettless, a multimedia design graduate and now head of the graphics and epe (Electronic Presentation of Evidence) unit. “Previously the case team approached us six months before trial, but now we’re trying to talk to them at the very beginning. Graphics can help throughout the whole investigation, from the preparatory hearing in front of the judge before the trial begins, up to an appeal afterwards.” Working primarily in Adobe Creative Suite II, the graphics unit also often uses PowerPoint to ensure that all the legal teams, court services and sfo staff involved in a case can access the material. As a legal requirement, everything that the jury is asked to consult in the jury room has to be printed off as hard copy.

Each case that comes to the sfo is complex for one of two reasons, Kettless explains. “Normally it’s because there’s some sort of process that is quite complicated for the jury to understand,” he says. “The defence may try to confuse a jury, or even suggest that there’s no way that the defendants could have come up with the fraud as it’s too complex. So, essentially, we break down, de-clutter the information and re-structure it using simple examples. Start off simple and build up until we hit something complex.” The work the team produces is, as you’d expect, straight and to the point – there are no aesthetic type choices here – but it succeeds brilliantly in whittling pages of information down to their essential facts.

Low describes a case of mortgage fraud as a simple example of how visuals helped to convey the enormity of the crime in question. “People had been going to mortgage lenders and borrowing money against houses they wanted to buy, claiming each house was worth £250,000,” he recalls. “A complicit professional would get a surveyor’s report to agree with the figure. So they borrowed the money, ignored the repayments and when the mortgage lender said they’d have to seize the house, they’d go round to the property to find that it either didn’t exist or that it was a slum property. So the police went and photographed all of these properties, the investigators got correct valuations done, got the valuation from the bank who’d sold the house and we put this all on a graph. This showed the value of the property as told by the fraudster to the bank – a big bar – the value of the property from our surveyors – a smaller bar – and the value of the property when it came to be disposed of by the bank – a very small bar. Alongside ran a big colour photo of each of the slum properties, boarded-up, windows broken. It was so obvious what was going on and, while it was a simple idea, it turned something that was complicated into something that was much more straightforward.”

The other issue for the graphics team to tackle, continues Kettless, concerns the staggering amount of transactions, multiple bank accounts and flows of money that can occur in a fraud case. Although the De-Laurey case wasn’t an actual sfo case (it was brought to the sfo’s graphics team by the City of London police) Kettless believes it highlights some of the complexities unique to high-level fraud.

“We analyse many folders’ worth of figures and try to narrow it down to one or two sheets of paper,” he explains. “From an overview of all the transactions, with the full figures, we break them down to show how they were created. The Joyti De-Laurey case was a huge success for us – she’d basically written cheques to herself, it was very simple, but the complexity was in all the money movements involved. It was easy to say that it was one woman signing cheques, but our graphics focused on at least 15 bank accounts that we had to show, in the UK and Cyprus, and we ended up with around 60 sheets of paper. But we employed one of our key techniques here to our advantage – colour association. The jury could then spot relationships quickly from the graphics. I thought we may have overwhelmed them but, in court, throughout the Opening, when we go in to watch the body language of the jury, to see if they’re awake, sitting back, or engaged, the reaction was great. They were sitting forward and studying the graphics; they understood them and the material had really worked.”

As much as Kettless’ knowledge of the various techniques that succeed best in simplifying information visually, the graphics team’s work is also governed by what it can’t show. The team is forbidden from using metaphors (though that doesn’t stop counsel asking them to “add in a washing machine” for the odd money laundering case); implying any kind of bias; or implicating the defendants as criminals (“no striped jerseys,” says Low). “The main constraint is actually to do with colour association again,” says Kettless. “We can’t use red anywhere as it has bad connotations – you’re in debt if you’re in the red, you have to stop at a red sign. It implies guilt, basically.”

“In the early days, a lot of teams objected to the use of graphics for exactly those reasons,” adds Low. “Of course, the defence may still object to them now, because it helps the jury come to the conclusions that we might expect. We had one case where the defendants were pleading not guilty all the way through, got into court and pleaded not guilty, then our counsel stood up and opened the case, introduced the graphics, the defence asked for an adjournment and they all pleaded guilty! That’s only happened once but we felt good about that.” In addition to cementing a conviction (and a prison sentence) the success of the graphics can also prove somewhat disheartening for a defendant on a professional level. “They suddenly realise how clear their fraud looks,” says Kettless. “They think it’s a web of complexity, but when they see it in graphical format they start having serious doubts.”

So if the success of a case relies on a conviction, does the graphics team ever find out how their material helped? “In two recent cases the judges weren’t that keen to use technology but afterwards told the case controllers that the graphics said it all,” admits Kettless. More significantly, the unit has also received two Commanders’ Commendations, the second highest award that the police force can give, for its work on the Joyti De-Laurey case and another they completed last year.

As for the future of the department (it’s hiring an additional member of staff at the moment) many of the developments will take place in epe, the Electronic Presentation of Evidence part of the unit, that enables their graphics to be displayed on courtroom screens. Interaction is interesting territory as it’s not something that juries are able to do themselves (they’re presented with evidence, they don’t interact with it) but it is something that will a≠ect the way evidence is shown to a court.

“For a long time, we’ve tried to put the wealth of material that we create into court electronically, on screens, because it’s quite normal that the ‘jury bundle’ [of evidence can] amount to several folders of critical information,” says Low. “Each team has a copy and it becomes ext­remely di∞cult if, for example, counsel asks you to please turn to page 1012 – there’s a long delay while everyone tries to find it and it’s not beyond some participants to say, ‘I’m terribly sorry but I don’t seem to be able to find the page’. Therefore it’s very useful for us to have everything shown on screens all around the court room, so someone can hit a button and page 1012 will be there.”

But what with epe technology in just nine courtrooms across the country, the sfo team often have to equip the courtrooms specially and this must, of course, compete with other demands on the Court Service. While murder and assault cases are beginning to use video reconstructions and computer simulations in court (Lord Saville’s enquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday was a good example of this technology), the fiscal nature of fraud cases means they don’t necessarily require the same technologies. However, in-roads are being made. “We also use real time transcription systems to add another level to epe,” says Low. “The stenographer will take down what’s being said in real time, they will feed it into a computer system and the text will start to flow up on the lawyers’ screens – so counsel can mark up things to come back to and question.”



What's the story?

The Storytelling issue, Oct/Nov 2017, is out now.
We invited writers to respond to our cover image
this month: read their stories inside.
PLUS: Tom Gauld, Oliver Jeffers, Giphy & S-Town

Buy the issue

The Annual 2018

The Creative Review Annual is one of the most
respected and trusted awards for the creative
industry. We celebrate the best creative work from
the past year, those who create it and commission it.

Enter now


South East London - Competitive


London - £35,000 - £40,000


Birmingham - Salary £30-£35k


Leeds, West Yorkshire - £20,000 - 30,000