Assets Recovery Agency head of legal Sue Edwards has brought plenty of nous to her job. And that’s bad news for wealthy criminals. Brendan Malkin investigates
Sue Edwards is not the most obvious person to be responsible for tracking and seizing assets belonging to the UK’s toughest criminals. She has a penchant for flowers. A postcard of a still life sits next to her desk. Hardly the stereotypical hallmarks of a mean crimebuster.
The signs of sweetness fade away, though, when the head of legal at the Assets Recovery Agency (ARA) speaks. Her years of government service, which appear to have left her forthright to the point of stern, become evident.
The ARA was set up in February 2003 with a mandate, laid out in the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, to seize the assets of criminals before they had been found guilty of any crimes.
Edwards’ role as head of legal, along with her four lawyers in Belfast and five in London, all of whom she is responsible for, is to first identify cases that the ARA is able to pursue. Some it cannot, mainly because there is insufficient evidence linking the alleged criminal to any offences.
When it can proceed, working alongside the ARA’s investigators, Edwards and her team trace the assets of the criminals. The final stage is to make a High Court request to freeze and recover the assets. Not all the assets are typical of what you would expect to find among a criminal’s loot. In one case it seized several donkeys.
Edwards’ workload is immense. Originally asked to take on 50 cases a year, the ARA has been referred 142 in the 16 months since it started. Also, in its first year it froze £14.8m of assets, well over its £10m target. Edwards, while not involved in the day-to-day development of cases, is responsible for providing a strategic overview for each of them.
To cope, Edwards says she expects “far more” lawyers to work in London. Most of the increase in staff numbers, from 90 to 131, have been investigators as opposed to lawyers. More lawyers are evidently needed. In recent months, the ARA has turned down cases referred to it from the police and other investigation bodies, but it denies that this was because it did not have the capacity to handle them.
Sometimes, Edwards argues, there is simply not enough evidence to make a link between the criminal and the assets.
There is, however, an undeniably heavy workload. Each ARA lawyer has to handle several cases. A litigation specialist, for example, has around 20 cases ongoing at any one time. As Edwards says: “We do need the barristers who are brought in at an early stage. Most of them are junior barristers in private practice.”
Edwards does not believe the criminal confiscation bodies that preceded the ARA (the Crown Prosecution Service’s asset recovery unit and Customs & Excise’s asset forfeiture unit) were to blame for this low success rate. Instead, she argues that police forces were not geared up for financial investigations. “There was also a need for resources to seek to recover assets at the start of criminal investigations,” she continues. “There were insufficient political drivers in place [to provide sufficient funding].”
Edwards’ career before the ARA prepared her for her current role well. Between 1975 and 1996, bar a five-year maternity break to raise her two children, she had various roles at Customs & Excise. One was as a tax lawyer, which would prove useful in her current job.
As an ARA lawyer, she first seeks to recover criminals’ assets (houses, cars, yachts… and donkeys). If that is not possible, either because the assets cannot be traced or they have been sold on, or there is insufficient evidence to link the assets to the criminal on the ‘balance of probabilities’ level of proof (far lower than the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ in other criminal-related cases), then Edwards seeks to carry out a ‘taxation’. This, in effect, involves doing the job of the tax man, charging VAT, corporation tax and so on, except this is in relation to money acquired illegally as well as legally.
Edwards cut her teeth prior to joining the ARA on implementing legislation, including the UN 1988 Drug Trafficking Convention, the founding principle of which was seizing the assets of criminals involved in drug-related crime. The knowledge of drugs law she gained there is also relevant at the ARA.
Her broad litigation experience for government bodies is also vital when handling the intricacies of tracing, freezing and seizing criminals’ assets. This tricky process involves first obtaining various ‘orders’ from the High Court in order to help with the investigation side. This is the responsibility of Edwards’ team. These orders include: account monitoring orders (in which banks monitor accounts of alleged fraudsters); disclosure orders (requiring individuals to disclose information); and customer information orders (in which financial institutions disclose bank account details).
This keeps Edwards and her legal team in a state of constant preparation for court hearings.
Until the ARA was set up, there was a low success rate in recovering criminals’ assets. “There was a report put out by the Policy and Innovation Unit, part of the Cabinet, in 2000,” says Edwards. “It reported on the likelihood of recovering assets of career criminals. It found there was a 4 per cent likelihood of success.” The report led to the Proceeds of Crime Act and, ultimately, to the establishment of the ARA. There is a lot of pressure on the department to succeed.
Head of Legal
Assets Recovery Agency
|Organisation||Assets Recovery Agency|
|Head of legal||Sue Edwards|
|Reporting to||Director Jane Earl|
|External counsel||The Treasury Solicitor|