The Solicitors Regulation Authority today announces a new initiative to ensure 'high risk' firms are not engaging in money laundering.
The regulator said it will step up its efforts to ensure solicitors do not become embroiled in the practice by scrutinising what checks firms have in place.
The SRA said it has grown increasingly concerned in recent years about the legal sector attracting organised criminals seeking to launder the proceeds of crime. Closer engagement will be started from this week with firms thought to be most at risk, with support and guidance provided to firms across the profession.
Paul Philip, chief executive (pictured), said: ‘Law firms often handle large sums of money, and this means they attract those who seek to launder the proceeds of crime. We want to work with the profession to ensure that all firms, no matter how large or small, have the systems in place to guard against money laundering and that they are compliant with the current regulations and legislation.’
The SRA will investigate systems used within firms to report money laundering, and will ask how widely these are known throughout the firm.
Solicitors will be asked whether they meet their legal obligations to report suspicious transactions to the authorities. Under the code of conduct, solicitors have a duty to ensure that their business complies with money laundering legislation and the Proceeds of Crime Act.
‘Our work will focus initially on those firms deemed at highest risk, but all firms need to be aware of the issue,’ added Philip. ‘There will be serious consequences for those who fail to take their obligations seriously.’
In a speech last week, Donald Toon, director of the economic crime command at the UK's National Crime Agency, warned that lawyers and other professional advisers could face investigation for 'enabling' organised crime.
'We are seeing that the provision of money laundering is a service to large-scale criminality,' Toon told the Cambridge Symposium on economic crime.
Reports to the SRA of suspicious dealings have dropped from 15,000 in 2008 to 4,000 last year. The SRA has said it wants to understand why the number of notifications from lawyers has dropped at a time when reports about money laundering in the UK in general have increased.
The SRA is expected to report its findings in May after completing research in early 2015.