With the National Crime Agency (NCA) having stated that the organisation is presently looking at upwards of 100 possible targets for Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWOs), Aziz Rahman considers the implications and asks whether this could be the year when UWOs really come of age.
The NCA has, to date, considered up to 140 cases that could be suitable for UWOs. While it would be foolish to automatically assume that each and every one of these cases will result in such an outcome, the very fact that the NCA is talking in such numbers has to be an indicator that many UWOs could be in the pipeline.
What’s also striking is that the NCA has referred specifically to what it has called a “significant number of lines of enquiry in relation to Russian-owned assets”. While it would be difficult to prove the link, such an approach may well be a retaliation for the Salisbury poisoning of Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia in March last year. In other words: ‘We cannot do anything in the criminal courts, but we can hurt you when it comes to your assets.’
It would be a surprise if the NCA was talking about so many possible UWOs and referring to a distinctly Russian situation if something was not in the offing. The crucial questions that remain to be answered are just how many UWOs we can expect in the coming months? Who are the targets going to be?
Whether or not the Salisbury poisoning is going to be the catalyst for a wave of UWOs, the noises from the NCA certainly seem to indicate that the wave is coming. The UK authorities may see UWOs as a legitimate way of attacking Russian-owned interests in London as a response to the poisoning. Alternatively, they may simply have decided that more needs to be done to dismantle the UK’s reputation as a haven for laundered money.
The NCA has very firmly set out its stall. The organisation has made it clear that it’s looking at its options in terms of assets, immigration and intelligence gathering to tackle those it suspects of benefiting from the proceeds of crime. It has been remarkably open in discussing how it’s considering using UWOs on a large scale. That looks set to have implications for many.
Powerful tool for the authorities
Introduced to the UK legal system in January last year with the passing of the Criminal Finances Act 2017, UWOs can be powerful tools for the authorities. They require the respondent to explain how an asset was acquired. If the explanation offered isn’t considered satisfactory then that individual’s assets can be considered recoverable property, meaning that the authorities can start civil recovery proceedings under the Proceeds of Crime Act to seize those assets. Many legal commentators have referred to the Proceeds of Crime Act as a draconian piece of legislation. Regular use of UWOs can only reinforce this viewpoint.
Let’s be clear here. UWOs can be sought by the authorities without any civil or criminal proceedings having begun against a person. They are a means by which an individual is forced to disclose information about their assets without them ever having been charged or convicted of any wrongdoing. The onus is not on the authorities to prove that a person has committed a crime. Rather, it’s on the individual involved to prove that they’ve done nothing wrong and that they’re entitled to possess the assets that they have.
It’s a process that’s weighted heavily in favour of the authorities. This is but one reason why 2019 could see UWOs becoming commonplace. While the likes of the NCA may well be relishing that prospect, there will be many individuals who need to seek the right legal advice in order to retain what’s theirs.
So far, there have only been two UWOs and both of these targeted the assets of the wife of a jailed Azerbaijani banker. It would be incredible if that figure hasn’t risen massively by the end of this year.
Aziz Rahman is Senior Partner and Head of the Corporate Crime Group at Rahman Ravelli Solicitors