After interminable deb-ates the EU has finally managed to draw up a directive on lawyers’ responsibilities with respect to money laundering. Interminable because the various lobbying groups on behalf of lawyers were up in arms about the possibility of any threat to the sacredness of client confidentiality.
The timing is immaculate. As the simple act of opening a letter in the US has become potentially fatal, suddenly the ease with which terrorists have been able to zip funds around the globe becomes glaringly important. Additionally, the domestic property market within the Eurozone has in the last year gone mad, with prices rising by 30 per cent on the Costa Brava and Costa del Sol (notoriously home to some dubious types), as criminals rid themselves of excess cash before the introduction of the euro.
In the face of such news, the new directive looks a little weedy. The lobbyists have negotiated a clause that allows lawyers to alert their clients that they are going to tip off the police about their concerns that the client might be laundering money. Now it would seem to me that this would be quite convenient for a criminal. Before the net can close in on you, your lawyer tells you that the police might be asking awkward questions soon, and so you book the next flight out. How long a notice period can a lawyer give before picking up the phone and talking to Special Branch? Half an hour? Three months? The answer is not clear.
Of course, the lobbyists will be pleased that, although they may have lost on the question of demanding identification and keeping detailed client records, they have won this key point. What a great example of lawyers always winning – the lawyer gets to show the client the door so as to avoid nasty questions but can still protect the all-important client.
Client confidentiality is obviously a tenet of the profession that is worth fighting tooth and nail to protect, but lawyers have also got to play their part in helping to protect the wider society. Yes, the possibility that your lawyer may squeal on you without telling may put off some clients, but do you really want them anyway? And will clients with nothing to hide mind too much about something that they know will not affect them?
And surely all this fever about client confidentiality cannot come down to keeping the clear blue water between the legal profession and the accountants for fear of being dwarfed by the big five?