Proposals to tighten up the law on solicitors who fail to tell police of clients they suspect of money laundering, have been condemned as Home Office “lawyer-bashing”.
Last week Home Secretary Jack Straw announced a series of measures to combat high-rolling criminals involved in drug dealing and organised crime.
He proposed a new criminal offence aimed at solicitors and accountants who fail to disclose their suspicions about money laundering operations.
The proposal follows National Criminal Intelligence Service figures, which show professionals passed on details to police in just 236 money laundering cases in 1997 – down from 300 in 1996.
The Law Society attacked the move, claiming the proposals would seriously erode client confidentiality. “This is typical Jack Straw lawyer-bashing,” said a spokesman.
He added: “The Home Office puts out the image that big geezers with broken noses are walking into solicitors' offices with briefcases full of used tenners. That is just not the reality. Money laundering is a sophisticated process and it is extremely difficult to spot.
“Client confidentiality is one of the big principles of practice and to take the step of informing on your client, you do need to be pretty sure there are genuine suspicions and it is very difficult in this very sophisticated crime to be absolutely sure there is something wrong.”
David Corker, a partner with business crime specialists Peters & Peters, said between five and 10 prosecutions of solicitors and accountants in the past four years had collapsed.
Currently solicitors can only be prosecuted for not reporting clients they suspect of being involved in terrorism or drug trafficking.
Under the new proposals, contained in a home office report, the net would be widened to include all crimes.
Lawyers would no longer be able to say they had suspicions of criminal activity, but claim ignorance over whether it was drugs or terrorism related – and therefore escape prosecution.
The Home Office is also thought to be considering introducing a lower standard of proof, where lawyers who “ought to have suspected” their clients, or else turned a blind eye to what was going on, would face charges.
Corker said he opposed Straw's proposals. “My fear is that the logical extension of these powers will ultimately result in the dilution of legal privilege. That very much concerns me,” he said.
Straw told last week's press briefing: “In an increasingly complex financial environment, the ease with which money is moved all over the world makes it more and more difficult to confiscate assets through traditional means.”