Law Society laundering reaction does not wash

The Lawyer's revelation that six leading City firms are under investigation by the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) caused a predictable stir in the national press.

It also caused consternation among senior partners at many firms, who immediately sought reassurances internally that their firms were not one of the dirty half dozen.

But the ridiculous response of Law Society spin doctors, who claimed that the NCIS investigations were just another example of "lawyer bashing", was a misguided attempt to deflect criticism and an example of the kind of complacency that members have come to expect.

Last month, the Law Society advised its members to take precautions by appointing a money laundering officer. But it failed to tell them that the appointment of such an officer by firms conducting "investment business" is already required by law under the Money Laundering Regulations Act 1994 and that failure to do so is a criminal offence.

As Dibb Lupton Alsop senior associate Alistair Walters said (see City Lawyer, page 11): "Law firms are involved in money laundering in this country and around the world. That is a fact which is indisputable. While it may be politically desirable for the Law Society to try to dismiss money laundering as a problem which only affects banks and financial institutions, [law firms] are being used as the tools of money launderers and are not realising it, either due to a lack of understanding of the problem, or because they are unable to turn down the lucrative rewards offered by criminals."

Client confidentiality, legal independence and an aura of professional respectability cannot be used as an excuse to cover criminal activity. Lawyers who launder money in the City are no better than the drug pushers on the streets of Kings Cross, whose activities they indirectly support.

The Law Society should have learned its lesson by now. Simply denying that there is a problem, or belittling it, does not make it go away. Whether or not NCIS is publicity hungry is irrelevant. The Law Society should have taken the lead in weeding out corrupt practices long before NCIS spoke to The Lawyer. As it stands, the society is left, yet again, responding to agendas set by professional bodies outside the profession.