Prosecuting bank directors: some historical observations

Whatever the constitutional proprieties involved in a UK Cabinet Minister getting publicly impatient about the lack of visible activity in the Crown Office with regard to possible prosecutions of ex-directors of the Royal Bank of Scotland (see here), it is of some interest to compare the situation today with that revealed in Robert Shiels' recently published article, "The criminal trial of the directors of the City of Glasgow Bank" 2013 Juridical Review 27-40. 

The City of Glasgow Bank closed on 5 October 1878 with losses of over £6 million, a record of "falsified accounts, securities entered at fictitious values, bad debts taken as good assets, and the gold which ought to have been held on statutory authority against note issue … deliberately squandered to the extent of over £300,000" (Shiels, p 28).  As Dr Shiels comments, "these sums were fabulous in their day" (ibid).

The directors of the Bank had all been arrested by 29 October, with only one granted bail, because the charges against them included aggravated theft (for which the death penalty was possible).  The trial was concluded and guilty verdicts were returned on 31 January 1879 on various charges of falsehood, fraud and wilful imposition; falsification of balance sheets to conceal and misrepresent the true state of the bank's affairs; and using and uttering false balance sheets with intent to defraud, whereby shareholders and members of the public were imposed upon and defrauded.  All the directors were found not guilty on charges of theft and embezzlement, however.

The guilty directors served prison sentences of between 8 and 18 months, which were regarded at the time as "ridiculously light", although most of them were also in jail for the three months between arrest and the conclusion of the trial.