Angelika Hellweger of Rahman Ravelli explains why the case of Yevgeny Prigozhin should not prompt a rapid rewrite of sanctions rules.
British lawyers being allowed to help a sanctioned Russian founder of a paramilitary organisation sue a journalist has prompted outcry.
Documents and leaked emails have shown that the UK’s Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation (OFSI) gave the go-ahead for lawyers to bypass sanctions in order to help Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin bring a libel action against the reporter.
It is a situation that will add to the concerns that have been mounting for years about the UK’s libel laws being used by non-UK nationals for controversial purposes. But most anger is currently focused on the fact that the lawyers were allowed to represent Prigozhin at a time when he was under sanctions. It is an anger fuelled by the fact that since the libel case was dropped, Prigozhin has become a high-profile component of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, recruiting prisoners to fight for Wagner Group in Ukraine..
The current rules allow for sanctioned people to access their assets (which have been frozen by the authorities) to pay for basic needs – which includes the ability to pay for legal fees. Decisions regarding this are taken by OFSI, which is the department within the Treasury that reviews such applications made by those subject to sanctions.
The Prime Minister’s office and officials have been quick to point out that the decision was made under the established OFSI scheme. Treasury minister James Cartlidge has stated that while the guidance for such sanctions exemptions is "longstanding", the government is now considering whether this approach is the right one and whether changes need to be made.
But great consideration needs to be given to the implications before any changes are proposed. Western countries regularly voice their belief in – and support for – the rule of law and the protection of human rights. But both of these depend on individuals having the right to genuine legal advice and representation, independent courts and, when necessary, a fair trial. That has to be the case for everyone, including those whose conduct or cause seems to the wider Western countries’ general public to be immoral, illegal or distasteful. Those lawyers who comply with their professional duties and represent such individuals within the rules of the legal system are entitled to do just that, even if some of the public may feel the need to criticise them for their choice of client.
OFSI acknowledges the importance of a person's ability to receive legal advice and representation, however unpopular that person (and OFSI’s decision) may be. Great care should be taken before any changes are made to the whole process simply because one case has prompted public anger.