Removing the veil of legitimacy

Recent political statements as to the role professionals can play in money laundering by “providing a veil of legitimacy to organised criminals” has led to a focus on “lawyers, accountants and estate agents [who] are too often woven into their web.”

Law enforcement agencies have followed suit. Indeed, HMRC have recently cracked down on a nationwide firm of estate agents for money laundering compliance failures (see our related blog Estate agents come under the HMRC spotlight) and a solicitor was recently sentenced to seven years imprisonment for money laundering committed in the course of his business as a conveyancing solicitor (see our related blog AML: targeting the professional enablers – action not just talk).

It seems now it is the turn of regulators with the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) Chief Executive reporting that in terms of law firm compliance with the AML regime: “it is a mixed picture…with some firms still struggling to get to grips” with the 2017 Money Laundering Regulations.

SRA to take action

The SRA confirm it will be writing to a “large number” (400) of firms in the coming weeks asking to see evidence of compliance with the Money Laundering Regulations. Warning that: “those who fall short should expect to enter our enforcement process.”

Reporting on action to date (in the last five years) the SRA confirms that 60 cases linked to potential improper money movements have been referred to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal. “Those who do not treat the Regulations seriously should expect similar treatment.”

Doubt has also been cast on whether lawyers are performing as expected/doing their job in relation to suspicious activity reports (SARs). The National Crime Agency has repeatedly expressed concern at the low number of suspicious activity reports (SARs) from the legal profession, with numbers falling a further 12 per cent last year (see our related blog Tackling illicit finance: lawyers under the spotlight).

Lawyers can certainly not afford to be complacent – the legal sector is clearly a target and must continue to be vigilant and prepared to demonstrate compliance or face serious consequences.

For those firms which have not yet done so now would be a good moment to get their houses in order.