New legislation has been introduced to enhance the power of law enforcement agencies to prosecute people responsible for serious and organised crime.
The Serious Crime Bill 2014-15, which was introduced in the House of Lords on 5 June, will create a new offence of participation in an organised crime group. Targets of the measure include so-called professional enablers – such as solicitors, accountants and other professionals – who help criminals to carry out their activities.
Home Office minister Karen Bradley, said: “For too long corrupt lawyers, accountants and other professionals have tried to evade justice by hiding behind a veneer of respectability. This new offence sends out a clear message to those individuals: if you are helping to oil the wheels of organised crime, you will be prosecuted and face being jailed.”
The Bill will make it an offence, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison, for someone to participate in an organised crime group’s activities if they know, or have reasonable cause to suspect, that those activities are criminal, or that their participation will help to carry on criminal activities. Under the legislation, someone could be guilty of an offence without even knowing people who are members of the organised crime group.
In guidance to the measure issued on 25 June, the Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, said: “This offence will rely on proving the active relationship with the organised criminality, so you will have to have done something to take part in the crime (for example deliver packages, rent warehouse space, written a contract).”
The society said it was concerned that the reasonable cause to suspect was a low burden of proof, adding “It is not clear from the Bill how far you would need to go to satisfy yourself that:
- the service you are providing is not assisting criminal activities down the line somewhere, and
- you had carried out a level of due diligence to a level that would ensure that you could not be said to have turned a blind eye to criminal activity.”
Palmers’ partner Jeremy Sirrell, a specialist in criminal defence, said: “This forthcoming legislation, and the risks of committing an offence under it, is certainly something that professionals need to be aware of, to ensure that they do not unwittingly fall foul of a law that is directed at a few corrupt individuals.
“An actual or potential accusation of a crime of this nature, or other white collar crime, such as fraud or money laundering, calls for immediate, specialist legal advice. For more information, please contact us.”