Dirty Money and Lawyers

There's been a dramatic rise in "unexplained wealth orders" in the UK. And East European oligarchs are finding Britain a less accommodating place to hide their wealth. These are nasty orders because if you can't say what the source of your money is, then it's confiscated.

According to the Financial Times a survey of 59 law firms by the Solicitors Regulation Authority shows the firms have done little to manage money laundering risks and 26 of them now face disciplinary action. Now the SRA is reviewing 400 law firms about compliance with anti-money laundering rules.

The UK has always (and is) a convenient place for dumping dirty money, or transiting it through to off-shore tax havens. A former, but weak, British premier promised, and then didn't deliver, that all beneficiary owners of off-shore trusts and the like would be named in a register.

Private Eye has produced a number of reports on how the UK thrives on dirty money with government and financial collusion, including "Looting with Putin: City of London and the Moscow Gold Rush", and "Tax Havens: Selling England by the Offshore Pound". (Worth the subscription to Private Eye, believe me.)

My ex-partner used to tell me about Russians turning up in her law firm with suitcases of money, in the 1990s, wanting to buy houses in London. Everyone knew it was wrong but no one did anything about it.

It now appears with the moves by the OECD and the SRA to clamp down on money laundering we might see more concerted effort to curb this activity. But I doubt it. The banks, including the biggest like HSBC, have been ensnared and law firms, especially those in the City, are natural extensions of networks of financial and professional service firms that exist in order to ensure the smooth transition of money around the world.

A few firms will be clobbered by their regulators, maybe cop a plea, and will carry on much as before only with extra precautions against getting caught. Until we have transparency in what is an opaque system, it is inevitable that money--in all shades of dirt--will attract its willing adherents.


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