United Kingdom National Crime Agency Obtains First Unexplained Wealth Order in Organized Crime-Related Investigation

On July 18, the United Kingdom National Crime Agency announced that on July 12, the United Kingdom High Court had issued the first Unexplained Wealth Order (UWO) in relation to a businessman from the north of England “with suspected links to serious organised criminals.”  Although the NCA has obtained a number of UWOs previously, it referred to this issuance as “the first time one has been obtained solely based on an individual’s alleged involvement in serious organised crime.”

Under section 362A of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (as amended by the Criminal Finances Act 2017), a United Kingdom Government enforcement authority, such as the NCA, may apply to the High Court for an order, pertaining to specified property, directed to a person whom the enforcement authority thinks holds the property.  That order requires that person to provide a statement that includes:

  • The nature and extent of that person’s interest in the specified property;
  • An explanation of how the person obtained the property “(including, in particular, how any costs incurred in obtaining it were met)”;
  • “[W]here the property is held by the trustees of a settlement, setting out such details of the settlement as may be specified in the order.”

In this case, the NCA was investigating eight properties that the businessman had bought in various locations across the country.  The NCA stated that its officers “believe the businessman’s property purchases were funded by a number of criminal associates involved in drug trafficking, armed robberies and supplying firearms.”

Note: While some anti-corruption advocates have been critical of United Kingdom law enforcement for not seeking more UWOs, particularly UWOs directed at serious criminals, the Government’s caution to date has been understandable.  The UWO is an unprecedented and powerful tool for law enforcement to combat the exploitation of the United Kingdom as a haven for criminal proceeds.

Law enforcement authorities can be forgiven for wanting to proceed with some caution, for two reasons: (1) the complexity of the process for obtaining UWOs; and (2) the need to ensure that the High Court  judges become comfortable with that process before the authorities seek UWOs against higher-level organized crime figures or other property-holders with greater incentive to challenge the legitimacy of the UWO.  Having obtained this UWO, however, the NCA will likely be expected – especially with a new Prime Minister and a new Home Secretary – to show that it is moving expeditiously in using all of the resources at its disposal to combat serious organized crime.

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