First solicitor conviction for tipping off client about money laundering probe
Développement en droit 6 décembre 2023 6 décembre 2023
Royaume-Uni et Europe
Assurance et réassurance
A solicitor has been handed a nine-month suspended prison sentence following his conviction for “tipping off” a client about a money laundering investigation by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO). The SFO has said that William Osmond, co-founder of Osmond & Osmond Solicitors Ltd, is the first ever solicitor to be prosecuted on this basis.
The SFO was investigating the funding of the purchase of a £4m property in Mayfair in 2013 by a company based in the British Virgin Islands, owned by James Redding Ramsay. In 2018, SFO investigators made covert enquiries of Mr. Ramsay’s solicitor, Mr. Osmond, who immediately contacted his client to inform him of the investigation. Over the next five months, Mr. Osmond met with Mr. Ramsay to discuss the matter, including by flying out to Mr. Ramsay’s home in Malta. Mr. Osmond also prepared a fake letter of engagement that set out his role as solicitor for the British Virgin Islands company in 2013.
The SFO searched Mr. Osmond’s office in 2019 and found handwritten notes of his discussions with Mr. Ramsay regarding the investigation and records of his forgery of the engagement letter. Mr. Osmond was the Money Laundering Reporting Officer (MLRO) for his firm at the time.
Following a five day trial at the Old Bailey, Mr. Osmond was convicted of tipping off under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (“POCA”), and also on one charge of forgery. The maximum sentence following conviction in the Crown Court for a tipping off offence can be up to five years' imprisonment.
It seems likely that the SFO’s decision to prosecute this case was motivated by the deliberate and repeated steps taken by Mr Osmond to inform his client about the SFO investigation, despite having been explicitly warned not to by the SFO. His role as MLRO for his firm was noted by the judge as a factor in his sentencing, and she rejected the suggestion that the offence was committed out of naivety. Mr. Osmond has also been ordered to carry out 100 hours of unpaid work and to pay £5,000 towards the SFO’s costs (they had originally sought £300,000 in costs).
The Solicitors’ Regulation Authority confirmed that they had been awaiting the outcome of the SFO’s prosecution before taking any steps in relation to Mr Osmond, and will now “collect all relevant information before deciding on next steps”. This comes as the new Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023 received royal assent and became law on 26 October 2023. The new Act permits the SRA to impose unlimited fines on traditional law firms, solicitors or employees in cases related to economic crime (the SRA’s fining powers for such firms/individuals are otherwise limited to £25,000). This provision extends to any breach of a regulatory obligation or professional misconduct which has the effect of inhibiting the prevention or detection of economic crime.
While the focus of firms and the guidance produced by the regulators is often on compliance with the Money Laundering Regulations 2017, this case is a salient reminder that firms and their lawyers must also be familiar with the underlying money laundering offences under POCA. Solicitors should keep at the front of their minds that they can not only be struck off but also imprisoned if they do not abide by the legislation.