Lawyers must answer to new EU crime-buster

By Mike Yuille. The launch this Thursday of Europol, the pan-European Union money laundering and drug smuggling investigator, will place new duties on commercial solicitors to disclose details of suspicious clients and will heighten the chances of solicitors coming under surveillance.

The UK's Europol member will be the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS), the same organisation that last month publicly criticised solicitors and accountants for failing to disclose the suspicious transactions of their clients.

Lawyers, bankers and other professionals will be legally required to disclose to Europol any suspicions they have about dubious clients or about deals that may involve “dirty” money.

Last month's NCIS annual report said: “It is most disappointing that the small number of disclosures from accountants and solicitors has decreased even further.”

Some 236 disclosures were made by lawyers last year, compared to the 300 made in the previous year.

Europol will gather information on suspicious cash movements and individuals, to help the EU's police forces in the growing fight against cross-border crime.

The body will exchange data with the criminal intelligence bodies of each of the EU's 15 states, and coordinate surveillance.

The pooling of information across Europe is expected to lead to more frequent and more thorough surveillance operations by police forces.

This, coupled with the fact that money launderers are increasingly funnelling funds away from banks and into smaller holdings – such as client accounts with lawyers and accountants – increases the chances that innocent solicitors may get caught up in investigations.

NCIS is the body behind the arrest and conviction last month of Tommy Adams, a member of north London's top crime family, the Adams brothers. It is understood a clutch of lawyers and accountants were arrested along with him.

Ed Cape, director of the Centre for Criminal Justice at the University of West England and an expert on intelligence-led policing, warned: “Solicitors must be even more vigilant about their duties of reporting suspicions, and the consequences for them if they don't. They also must realise that they could get caught up as subjects in surveillance operations, which can include bugging of offices and telephone taps.”

George Staple, former director of the Serious Fraud Office and now a partner at City firm Clifford Chance, adds: “There's always a risk that even when solicitors are innocent, they may not initially be perceived as such by investigators.”

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