Solicitors and other members of the legal profession who work with criminal gangs to help them in their activities could face imprisonment of up to five years under new proposals from the Home Office. These proposals form part of the Serious Crimes Bill, announced today in the Queen’s Speech.
The bill also includes other provisions to facilitate a crackdown on organised crime. These include enhanced abilities for the seizure of criminal assets and the closure of loopholes that previously allowed some criminals to keep what they had gained from illegal activities.
In order to be prosecuted under the new bill, specifically under the offence of “participation in an organised crime group,” it will have to be established by prosecutors that a defendant had “reasonable grounds to suspect” that their activities were aiding criminals and facilitating crime.
The Home Office claimed that some lawyers, along with other professionals such as accountants, are wilfully assisting criminals by deliberately failing to ask questions about why their services are needed, and then later claiming ignorance of any criminal activity. Karen Bradley, a Home Office Minister, welcomed the proposals. She said that “Nobody is above the law. But for too long corrupt lawyers, accountants and other professionals have tried to evade justice by hiding behind a veneer of respectability.” She went on to suggest that the new law would [send] out a clear message” to professionals who were “helping to oil the wheels of organised crime.”
However, many voices within the legal industry have spoken out in opposition to the proposals. These include president of the Law Society Nicholas Fluck. While stressing that he had “no sympathy” for solicitors who aided criminals, Fluck said that it was questionable whether the laws would make any real difference given the regulatory and statutory obligations that solicitors are already under. He also said that the issue of criminal intent had to be looked at carefully. Requiring defendants to prove they did not have “reasonable grounds to suspect” that they were facilitating crime might result in a reversal of the burden of proof.
Richard Atkinson, chairman of the criminal law committee of the Law Society, joined Fluck in criticising the law. Atkinson asked whether the government may be “seeking to impose on lawyers and other professionals a duty to enquire into the workings of their clients.”