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Private Investigator

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A private investigator is likely to be hired by an individual or company to collect evidence on a case.

Cases may be of a professional nature e.g. investigating whether an insurance claim is fraudulent, or personal e.g. whether a spouse is cheating on their partner or the investigation of alimony claims.

Private investigators are likely to work on a commission basis if self employed or in a specific area if employed by a company or solicitor.

Commissions may vary depending upon skillset and often previous experience/ job role.

The role is one of gathering evidence rather than solving crimes and it is important to note that a private investigator has neither legal jurisdiction nor any obligation to solve crimes.

A private investigator will be expected to act within the rule of law and it is important that they do so in order to ensure that evidence is not invalidated when presented in a legal context.

The methods utilised are likely to vary depending upon the task, but are likely to include both desk work and investigative procedures including surveillance.

The techniques employed will ultimately be a key part of the job and will define the success of the investigator.

Likely jobs will include

  • process serving
  • surveillance
  • counter-surveillance
  • searching for missing persons
  • child custody cases
  • investigating adultery
  • tracing parentage for adopted individuals
  • due diligence – namely credit checks, neighbourhood investigation for potential house purchasers and background searches for potential employees
  • debt recovery
  • investigating fraud
  • advising on surveillance and bugging equipment

Sherlock Holmes epitomised the early interpretation of the role of a private investigator.

Approached by a myriad of mysterious characters, he collated evidence to solve a range of bizarre incidents and crimes.

Historically Eugène François Vidocq is noted by many as being the first official private investigator, founding Le bureau des renseignements in 1833.

Working out of France, Vidocq was a pioneer within the field of criminology and is credited with the development of plain clothes police work in France in the early 19th Century.


Private investigators will tend to be self-employed and individual fees for a particular job will be negotiated with a client either beforehand or on an ongoing basis.

It is likely that expenses and mileage will also be met by the client where they form a significant part of the individual commission.

Hourly rates are also likely to vary depending upon the job but you should expect to charge between £20-£100 per hour depending upon the task (see below).

Insurance investigators are likely to start on around £20,000 which can be expected to increase to about £50,000 with significant experience.


  • Process Serving – private investigators are often commissioned to notify a plaintiff that a lawsuit has been filed against them.
  • Research – private investigators will be expected to engage in both investigative and desk based research to establish the facts of a case.
    This may require substantial expertise in specialist audio and visual surveillance equipment as well as IT skills.
    A considerable amount of time may be spent using databases or establishing key facts that form the foundations of an investigation.
  • Investigation.
  • Surveillance and counter-surveillance, including the use of specialist equipment.
  • Preparing cases for presentation in court.
  • Interviewing witnesses and preparing statements.
  • Preparing and maintaining accurate files and case notes.


There are no pre-requisites to becoming a private investigator although the Security Industry Authority (“SIA”) in consultation with the Home Office concluded that there was a significant need for licensing within the industry and in the future you should expect to pass an identity and Criminal Records check as well as demonstrate appropriate skills.

A background in either the law and/or legal system will prove useful.

You will also need knowledge of data protection, health and safety and confidentiality of information legislation as well as a thorough understanding of a range of investigative methods.

There is a range of highly specialised fields as well, such as forensic accounting and IT investigation.

In order to practise these roles specialist qualifications are likely to be needed.

These may include exams such as the ACA or Certified Fraud Examiner.

There is now a range of qualifications available for those considering entering the industry; qualifications of note are:


  • Research and Investigation – you must be able to research information meticulously to ascertain the facts in a case.
    This may involve having knowledge of IT systems as well as being able to perform credit checks.
    You will also need to ensure that all bases are covered so that an investigation is watertight if it goes to court.
    Performing proper investigation will also involve exceptional organisation and planning skills.
  • Communication – you will need to be able to convey and present both verbal and written information clearly and accurately.
    There may be instances where information is highly sensitive and you will have to deliver this appropriately. There will also be circumstances where you work with other professionals and you will need to have a proper manner and be able to work well in a team.
  • Person – you will need to be analytical and attentive with a desire to ascertain facts.
    You will need to be observant and curious by nature and, if self employed, develop networking skills to source new business leads.
    For surveillance and investigative work you may have to apply exceptional discretion to ensure that a case is not compromised.
  • Knowledge – you must maintain a knowledge of computer techniques and in certain circumstances meet CPD requirements.
    You will also need to maintain knowledge of legislation and data protection developments.

Working Conditions

Working hours can be long and anti-social and in certain roles you will need to have mental perseverance and stamina.

Situations may be both physically and mentally demanding and you may work with emotional individuals.


While it is possible to enter the industry without prior experience, many successful investigators have a background in the military, police, security and intelligence services.

A background in journalism also develops many of the key investigative techniques.


The majority of private investigators are self employed.

The Association of British Investigators maintains a list of investigators within the UK which can form a useful base for those looking for work.

Career Progression

Some of the larger investigative firms may have management roles but the majority of investigators remain self-employed and choose to stay that way.

Affiliated careers may also be a natural progression for some individuals, such as security and intelligence services or working as a detective.

Also known as…

  • Private Detective
  • Private Eye
  • PI
  • Sleuth
  • Gumshoe, Dick, Snoop, Bloodhound, Tail (slang)
  • Professional Investigator

Related Jobs

What’s it really like?

Stella Kenrick – Private Investigator

How long have you been in this particular job / industry?

I’ve been working as a private investigator for 4 years now.

I got involved after meeting my husband who runs a P.I. firm.

I have a background knowledge of the law though and this has proved very helpful for the role.

What did you do before this job?

I was a Magistrate for the Worcester City magistrate’s court.

Magistrates are responsible for making decisions on about 95% of all criminal cases in the UK and this experience has proved very useful in my current role.

What do you do in a typical day at work?

There is no such thing as a typical day as there is such a wide range of projects and tasks which I will get involved in.

More common tasks may include taking instructions from solicitors for process to be served (divorce petitions/winding up orders/orders to attend court etc), receiving jobs from other agents advertised online/by telephone and ongoing work such as tracing or surveillance or a missing person.

A typical day will also depend upon whether you choose to specialise or not.

For example if we get a case which involves computer fraud, we’ll normally look to outsource this to a specialist in this field.

There is a lot of referral work this way.

What do you like about the job?

There is a huge variety of work and no two days are the same.

For the most part you have to stay emotionally detached from the work in order to remain objective; however, I was recently involved in a missing person search which had been ongoing for several years and I’m happy to say that we were successful in re-uniting the family.

What do you dislike about the job?

The irregular and anti-social hours! You will have to work to other people’s schedules and a lot of the job can be quite mundane, for example sitting around on surveillance work.

There is also a very harrowing side to the business, even in the more functional work such as process serving.

As an example, I have been in several situations where I’ve been asked to serve a divorce petition.

Some people never expected this to happen and are deeply emotional and resistant; I’ve even heard of cases of people becoming violent.

You need to remember that you don’t have any legal authority and to step away if you don’t feel safe.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?

There’s been a real overhaul in the industry recently and I think that there is a movement towards greater regulation on the cards.

If you want to go into this role in the future I’d recommend that you set up solid foundations, do a reputable course and get advice from the Association of British Investigators.

What job(s) do you think you might do after this role (i.e. career progression)?

I will probably stay in this role now until I retire; however, in terms of career progression it is advisable to set up/ look to own your own business or specialise if you have skills in a particular area (e.g. computer fraud/close protection/surveillance/electronic sweeps & bugging etc).

There is a lot of money in some of these areas and developing a specialism is a real way to distinguish you and guarantee work.

Being self employed can be difficult and knowing you have a good pipeline of business is very re-assuring.

What other inside-information can you give to help people considering this career?

Get advice from existing P.Is and make sure you know what you are doing.

It’s as important to know what you legally can’t do as what you legally can.

Networking is also very important and having good relationships with solicitors can be particularly useful.

Remember it is nothing like the way it is portrayed in films, on television or in books!

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