NCA obtains first UWO against a suspected organised criminal – a change in approach

22 July 2019

The National Crime Agency (NCA) continues to deploy Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWOs) as a means to tackle illicit finance – now, as anticipated, it has turned its focus on serious organised crime.

Reporting that it had secured a UWO for property worth £10 million, the NCA announced that this was the first such order targeted at suspected serious organised crime in the UK. Under scrutiny is a “businessman in the north of England, whose property empire is suspected of being funded by criminal associates involved in drug and firearms trafficking.”  The businessman must now reveal the source of the funds which allowed him to build up a £10m property empire, or face properties confiscated. As is typical when UWOs are granted, temporary asset freezes on his properties were also obtained, which means the targeted property cannot be sold or transferred while the investigation is on-going.

UWOs focused on serious organised crime

UWOs to date have focused on politically exposed persons, so-called “PEPs” (see our related blogs: Unexplained Wealth Orders: What we know one year on and Unexplained Wealth Orders for prime property). Given that the Criminal Finances Act 2017 empowers the High Court to make UWOs in respect of both PEPs and those suspected of involvement in “serious crime” (as defined by the Serious Crime Act 2007, and including drug, people trafficking and firearms offences, but also money laundering, fraud, bribery and computer misuse). PEPs may have been regarded as low hanging fruit but this latest UWO signals a change in approach by the NCA.

In April 2018, the NCA referred to “100s of cases” that were being considered for an UWO and so this development is unlikely to be the last strike into the heart of serious organised crime.  The potentially dire consequences for those respondents targeted by a UWO means that this remains a key area for development over the coming months and years. An appeal against one of the first UWOs is due to be heard towards the end of this year, and it is expected that the Court of Appeal will provide much-welcomed guidance on the procedure for obtaining, and application of, UWOs. That the NCA has chosen not to wait until the landscape is clearer may be an indication of their appetite to continue seeking UWOs regardless of any arguments respondents will raise.

What are Unexplained Wealth Orders?

Unexplained Wealth Orders were introduced under the Criminal Finances Act 2017 and have been available to law enforcement since February 2018. They give law enforcement the tools it needs to tackle high value money laundering, and are intended to bolster the Proceeds of Crime regime, by making it easier for law enforcement agencies to seize assets suspected of representing criminal property.  See our related blog: What you need to know about Unexplained Wealth Orders

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