Aziz Rahman of Rahman Ravelli
Aziz Rahman, of award-winning solicitors Rahman Ravelli, explains the authorities’ new way of seizing the assets of those in business – and how it can be challenged.
As tensions rise between the UK and Russia, there has been much talk about taking a closer look at British assets owned by a select band of wealthy people from the former Soviet state. But many other people’s business interests could also face closer scrutiny.
This March, it was announced that the UK’s first two unexplained wealth orders (UWO’s) had been issued against a political figure believed to be from a country belonging to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS); which consists of ten former Soviet republics as well as Georgia and Azerbaijan.
UWO’s were introduced by the Criminal Finances Act 2017 and came into effect on January 31 this year. An Order requires a person to explain how an asset, such as a house, was acquired. If the authorities are not satisfied with the person’s explanation, they may then attempt to seize the assets using powers under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.
It is worth noting that a UWO could be issued against anyone in business who the authorities think is “up to no good’’. The main concern for anyone faced with one is that the burden of proof is reversed.
As a UWO is a civil law matter rather than a criminal law one, the authorities do not have to prove the person with the assets gained them through illegal business activity or have that individual convicted. It is up to the subject of the order to prove that their wealth was not obtained illegally. If they cannot do this, they could lose their assets without being found guilty of anything.
It is a situation that no one will want to find themselves in. Yet there may be many in business - who do not have any questionable foreign political connections or any links to serious crime – who may have to prove their assets were acquired through legitimate business dealings.
So how should someone faced with an order go about defending their assets?
Doing this will be far easier if an individual or company do their business in and open and transparent manner. This is the case, regardless of the type of business or its size. Comprehensive, up-to-date and audited records can provide all the necessary evidence to challenge the allegations by the authorities that are looking to issue a UWO.
If there is a proper trail that can be followed to account for all wealth and assets going in and out of a company, it will always be possible to mount a defence of your business dealings.
But on top of this, a person needs to be familiar with this area of law. They must also know how to negotiate with and challenge the authorities issuing the Order– or find someone who is.
UWO’s are not the first time the authorities have used the civil law to make life difficult for those in business. They often issue restraint orders to freeze the personal and business assets of individuals. But UWO’s, like restraint orders, can be challenged if the subject of one is legally represented by lawyers who are completely up to speed on such legislation and can go toe to toe with the authorities involved.
The authorities can and do make mistakes and exercise poor judgement. There is no reason to suggest this will not be the case with UWO’s – which is why there will always be scope for challenging them.
UWO’s are new. But they are based on the authorities’ wish to take assets from some in business without needing to prove guilt. That is nothing new – and not something that cannot be challenged.
Aziz Rahman is founder of Rahman Ravelli; a top-ranked business crime law firm in national and international legal guides.
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