Last month Tony Blair trailed the idea of lowering the burden of proof to make life a bit easier for the US-style crime busters who will target gangsters, people-traffickers and drug barons. And only last week it was revealed that lawyers might have to grass up their own clients as part of the battle against organised crime.
As reported in the previous issue of the LawZone Newswire, the government has been chipping away at the once sacrosanct principle of client confidentiality through the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. This week sees another whopping chunk removed as the Money Laundering Regulations 2003 come into force creating a brand new offence under the Act of ‘failing to report’ in situations where a lawyer has ‘reasonable grounds’ to suspect money laundering.
The assault on client-lawyer relations is coming from all sides. According to The Times, solicitors and other professionals would be forced to disclose confidential client information under sweeping new police powers for SOCA being planned by ministers. Lawyers will be obliged to answer investigators’ questions and a failure to do so would leave them open to being fined or even sent to jail.
“My heart sinks,” said Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty. “It is always talk tough, legislate first and think later. Yet again it is the rush to the statute book before you have even made the case and looked properly at existing powers.” Of course, the idea of lawyers becoming “informants for the police”, as Liberty put it, will stick in the craw of defence lawyers, every bit as much it does for family lawyers being obliged to report their clients for paying the nanny cash in hand. “Lawyers are there to represent their clients and work out their best line of defence,” argue Liberty. “No lawyer would encourage their clients to lie – that would be a complete breach of their professional standards.”
Putting professional ethics aside for one moment, it was reported this week that, owing to the Proceeds of Crime legislation, banks and other financial institutions had filed almost 95,000 suspicious activity reports to National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) last year, and that number is expected to hit 200,000 this year. There is a point when NCIS becomes swamped with reports which it hasn’t got the manpower to do anything with – many lawyers suspect the law enforcement body is there already.
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