Doubts raised over whether Serious Fraud Office probe into failure of Hertfordshire contractor will go to trial

The Serious Fraud Office may drop its case against seven businessmen who were arrested after the collapse of contractor Bickerton Construction more than three years ago.

The recent collapse of a similar trial brought against quantity surveyors that worked on the Jubilee Line extension is understood to have put pressure on the Serious Fraud Office to abandon the case. That battle lasted for more than two years and accrued millions of pounds of legal fees before it was halted.

The Bickerton case arose after the failure of a St Albans-based regional contractor with a 72-year history of building in Hertfordshire.

Bickerton failed in January 2003 with debts in excess of £4.5m. Six months earlier, it had been sold by a firm called Artisan and bought by John Aviss, one of the seven businessmen arrested. In December 2003, 12 months after the collapse, police arrested the men as part of an investigation into the failure of Mea Projects, an M&E group owned by Aviss. Nobody from Artisan was implicated.

Shortly after the collapse, Aviss claimed that the Bickerton accounts were false at the time of sale. Artisan countersued for £1.2m over an alleged breach of the sale agreement. Artisan won this High Court battle.

Building understands that the Serious Fraud Office will soon have to decide whether to prosecute the seven men.

Add a high-profile case with huge costs and you see where this may lead

Source close to Bickerton case

However, after a three-and-a-half year investigation into the financial wranglings involved there are serious doubts over whether the men will be charged.

A source close to the case said there were similarities to the Jubilee Line fraud trial and that this could influence the Serious Fraud Office’s view on whether to proceed or not.

The source said: “The Bickerton case has been running for more than three years – there has been a huge amount of man-hours, money and bureaucracy spent on this case. Add on to this a high-profile, massively long court case, with huge additional costs, and you can see where this may lead.”

The Serious Fraud Office has faced intense criticism over the Jubilee Line trial, with the attorney general Lord Goldsmith saying that such a debacle “must never be allowed to happen again”. He said that the decision would cause “great public disquiet as it causes me considerable disquiet”.

How the Bickerton affair unfolded

June 2001
John Aviss acquires Bickerton Construction along with sister contractor Driver Construction – a separate firm from Driver Contracting – in June 2001 from the Artisan Group.

January 2003
Bickerton collapses owing unsecured creditors £4.2m. High Court battle begins when Artisan sues Aviss and his holding company Infiniteland for £1.2m over an alleged breach of the sale agreement of Bickerton to Aviss.

December 2003
Seven men arrested in dawn raids, including John Aviss.

March 2003
DTI launches inquiry into Bickerton affair.

May 2004
Artisan wins High Court battle with Aviss.

May 2004
The Serious Fraud Office begins second round of interviews with people connected to the Bickerton collapse.