An estimated £90bn of crime proceeds is laundered through the UK each year, a grim indictment of the anti-money-laundering (AML) regime of reporting and consent.
A recent letter to the Financial Times argued that this regime should be replaced by an entirely new legal framework based on the ‘bedrock’ of transparent beneficial ownership. (Ministers have their own ideas).
But what of such transparency in the legal system itself? The FT’s correspondent has a kindred spirit in Court of Appeal judge Lord Justice Irwin, whose lecture to the personal injury bar coincided with the final parliamentary knockings of the Civil Liability Bill.
As solicitors are sidelined further, Irwin’s call for more clarity on who is profiting from what – and how – is timely. Ownership structures and flows of money in the insurance industry are not necessarily transparent. The registers of alternative business structures confirm that a provider is licensed, but not who owns the entity.
Certainly, the SRA will know the identity of – and vet – the beneficial owner. But is that enough?
Irwin thinks not. There is nothing to prevent a law firm being owned by a claims farmer or either being owned by an insurer. Several insurance companies are thought either to own legal practices or be involved in joint ventures with them. But the absence of full transparency creates a real danger that commercial interests trump the interests of the injured and the public.
Irwin suggests regulators be required to publish all the ownership – including ultimate ownership – of law firms. As he points out, practices confined by the old professional rules were to some degree protected from conflict and undue commercial pressure by the proscription on outside owners.
Irwin’s targeting of ABSs may appear a tad unfair given the dearth of evidence that the ‘new model’ army is any more prone to mischief than traditional firms. But that of itself does not refute his argument for full transparency on ownership. Any investor who would be deterred by full disclosure is an investor the market is surely better off without.