Lawyers face jail over links with fraudsters

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The Independent Online
LAWYERS AND accountants who fail to tip off the police about clients they suspect are laundering money face up to five years in jail, under government proposals announced yesterday.

Suspected major criminals could also have assets worth more than pounds 10,000 seized by the courts as part of sweeping changes to confiscation and money laundering laws. The police plan to use Inland Revenue tax files to help them target criminals who hide their money in legitimate businesses and off-shore banks.

The initiative follows growing frustration among law enforcers that criminal "Mr Bigs" are able to live lavish lifestyles funded by drug dealing, counterfeiting and smuggling without fear of prosecution.

A Home Office working group yesterday published proposals to force all professionals, business and trades people to tell the police if they know, or suspect, that a client is engaged in money laundering. The new offence is aimed at solicitors and accountants, but financial advisors, bank mangers, and estate agents could also be affected. Failure to report any suspicious transaction could result in a five year prison sentence and an unlimited fine. Now, the law only requires people to report suspicions that someone is laundering the proceeds of drug trafficking, or is engaged in terrorist fund-raising.

Last year solicitors passed on information in 236 cases and accountants gave details of44. This compares with more than 10,000 involving building societies and banks.

Robert Roscoe, a council member of the Law Society, which represents 76,000 solicitors in England and Wales, argued that the numbers of referrals were low "because cases involving money laundering are rare".

John Abbott, the director general of the National Criminal Intelligence Service, said an exchange of information with the Inland Revenue, whose files have traditionally been secret, would be important.

Liberty, the civil rights group, however, argued that the proposals "undermine the presumption of innocence" and violate human rights legislation.

The proposals, which are going out to consultation, will cover England and Wales and could become law by 2000.