Crack down on lawyers: financial crimes expert

Until the government starts throwing lawyers in jail for helping criminal clients wash their money, there will be no serious impact on financial crimes in Canada, said Jeffrey Robinson, a London-based money laundering specialist and prolific author on financial crimes.

National Post
November 6, 2003

Crack down on lawyers: financial crimes expert
Money laundering
Adrian Humphreys

As government officials prepare to meet with lawyers' groups to end an impasse over Canada's anti-money laundering rules, a leading specialist on financial crimes says excluding lawyers from tough new reporting requirements leaves the door wide open for gangsters to access their dirty money.

Until the government starts throwing lawyers in jail for helping criminal clients wash their money, there will be no serious impact on financial crimes in Canada, said Jeffrey Robinson, a London-based money laundering specialist and prolific author on financial crimes.

"It is a huge hole," Mr. Robinson told the National Post. "If you start throwing Canadian lawyers in jail, things would change radically."

The comments come as officials with the departments of Justice and Finance prepare to meet with representatives of the Federation of Law Societies and the Canadian Bar Association on Friday in Victoria to try to work through deep divisions on the issue.

Lawyers won a series of court-ordered exemptions from the government's Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering Act) that require a long list of bankers, accountants and other financial intermediaries to report suspicious transactions to the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada, a central tracking authority known as FinTRAC.

The government's act came into force two years ago and was immediately challenged by lawyers' groups in the B.C. Supreme Court. That court granted an injunction, exempting lawyers from reporting to FinTRAC until a full hearing on the matter.

The government refused, however, to extend that exemption across Canada, leading to challenges being mounted in seven provinces. After the lawyers' groups won subsequent court injunctions in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Ontario, plus two appeals, the government agreed to re-evaluate the regulation.

Tomorrow's meeting is the first attempt to reach an agreement that will tighten the money laundering regulations while not offending the courts and the legal profession.

Maurice Laprairie, a Regina lawyer and chairman of the federation's task force on the money laundering issue, said it is not that lawyers as individuals feel they should be exempt from the law, but that regulations should not intrude on solicitor-client privilege.

"They want to ask questions about our clients and that is the tricky part," he said yesterday. "For little if any benefit, the principles of a public's right to legal protection is throw out. It's a case of little benefit—huge harm."

In a submission to the House of Commons finance committee, the bar association said: "The social cost of conscripting the legal profession into the role of state investigators against their own clients is profound. Clients must be able to seek the assistance of a lawyer knowing that the information they communicate will remain with the lawyer and go no further."

Mr. Robinson, however, said it is of paramount importance to bring lawyers into the suspicious transaction reporting regime.

The exclusion of lawyers allows criminals to take the money they acquire through drug trafficking and other criminal acts and give it a clean pedigree by moving it through accounts cloaked by lawyer's confidentiality privileges, he said. And that allows gangsters to stay in business.

"A small number of lawyers would do it knowingly. A bigger number do it unknowingly," Mr. Robinson said on a recent visit to Toronto.

"The basis of the legal system is that everybody is entitled to a lawyer to defend him and protect his rights. And rightfully so. But there is a big difference between that and when the lawyer becomes your business partner to hide money. This is not a case of going after lawyers who are giving legal advice to a client, this is, in essence, a business partner who happens to have been to law school and works out of a law office," he said.

The Department of Finance remains determined to find a way to include lawyers in the reporting regulations but is willing to work to find a less confrontational way of doing it, said Andrée Houde, department spokeswoman.

"The government has been working on some proposals that will hopefully meet with the lawyers' approval," Ms. Houde said.

"We want to bring lawyers back onto the list. We remain committed to a strong anti-money laundering regime that has all financial intermediaries complying with reporting regulations and that includes the legal profession," she said.

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