February saw the courts grant the first ever Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWO), requiring an as yet unidentified individual (A) to provide information about the extent of his or her interest in a number of properties totalling circa £22 million in London and the South East. The properties have been frozen pending the provision by A of the information requested. If, without reasonable excuse, A does not provide the information requested in the order, the NCA could proceed to recover those assets as criminal property, and A could lose any interest he or she has in them.
A UWO is a new type of court order brought into force in January by the Criminal Finances Act 2017, as a tool for investigating property suspected of being purchased with the proceeds of crime. It is a controversial measure, because it imposes a burden on the person named in the order to prove that the assets in question were acquired legitimately or risk losing them.
In cases like this one (where the respondent has political connections outside of the European Economic Area), the investigator does not even have to prove that the person named in the order is or has been involved in crime. It is an offence to knowingly provide false or misleading information in response to a UWO, so parties seeking to recover their property will need to tread carefully in responding to any request for information as part of a UWO.
Investigators will be particularly keen to use these new powers to target properties where the ultimate beneficial owner is difficult to identify because, for example, the property is held by a complex network of companies. This is likely to be the first of many such orders being granted as the government presses ahead with its anti-corruption agenda.