Law Soc defends confidentiality

Law firms no longer face the onerous task under money laundering rules of providing banks with proof of identity of clients for whom they hold money in client and trust accounts.

This important concessionwas won by the Law Society in talks last week with the British Bankers' Association (BBA), over what has been a growing problem for solicitors.

Diane Burleigh, head of the society's courts business team, says: “The banks won't ask for such information. If they do, then solicitors don't have to provide it, because under the Solicitors Act the banks are not entitled to ask.”

The difficulties arose because of a conflict between solicitors' client confidentiality under the Solicitors Act 1974, and the responsibilities of banks and other institutions under the money laundering rules to ensure they have satisfactory proof of identity of all account-holding clients.

The banks' strict interpretation of the money laundering rules meant that they should require such proof also for underlying clients in solicitors' accounts as well.

This would extend to accounts relating to all types of solicitor business, and not just the investment-related business where solicitors themselves are required to make detailed checks and record-keeping in order to comply with the rules.

But Burleigh says that under the Solicitors Act the solicitor is the principal account holder so, in law, a bank need only verify the solicitor's identity.

Sue Thornhill, BBA deputy director, says the banks are happy to abide by the Solicitors Act. She says the City's money laundering steering group will advise banks they need only look to the solicitor and not his clients, and that any suspicions of laundering should be reported to the authorities.

“It does run contrary to the directive but it is a pragmatic agreement reached so that banks do not breach solicitor-client confidentiality,” she says. “They will not fall out with the solicitors over a problem created by the legislators.”