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President's column

18 March 19

Brexit features high on the agenda at present, but the Society is also under scrutiny to continue to improve its anti-money laundering regime, by the agency supervising professional body regulators

by Alison Atack

Brexit inevitably featured high on my agenda in February, with a visit to our Brussels office which we share with the other UK Law Societies. I also had meetings with our members there, plus the Scottish Government and an Enterprise Forum at the European Parliament.

I also attended a Brexit Summit in London. My task as a panel member was to evaluate the new opportunities that Brexit may open up for us. Lord Goldsmith and Sir David Wootton were among the fellow panellists – no pressure there then. It was good to be able to bring a Scottish perspective to the proceedings and to try to be positive about Scotland’s strong market for legal services and other forms of international dispute resolution. I emphasised that UK trade promotion initiatives should recognise that the Scottish legal industry and Scots law offer as many advantages as England & Wales. Others on the panel could find very few opportunities at all, so I tried to be upbeat!

The AML imperative

Brexit isn’t the only thing high on my agenda: anti-money laundering is too. HM Treasury and the National Crime Agency in the latest National Risk Assessment clearly define the legal sector as being at high risk of money laundering. And while Financial Action Task Force’s most recent report was overall possibly its most positive report to date, it did identify a need for improved supervision in both the legal and accountancy sectors.

The Law Society of Scotland is a professional body supervisor for anti-money laundering (AML), and I was back in London recently for a UK Government ministerial round table on AML. Chaired by John Glen MP, Economic Secretary to the Treasury, and Ben Wallace, Minister of State for Security and Economic Crime, it was attended by chief executives and presidents from other professional body supervisors across the UK.

Despite the complexity of the subject matter, the key themes which stood out for me can be summarised very succinctly. Anti-money laundering is very high up the list of priorities for the UK and Scottish Governments, therefore the supervisory activities of professional bodies will be placed under increasingly close scrutiny. The Society is regulated by the Office for Professional Body AML Supervisors (OPBAS), and for us to meet our statutory obligations as a supervisor we employ a range of tools to assess the risk of our population and of our individual members.

So it is a source of comfort to know that we are being scrutinised and pushed to do more. If the profession is at risk, it is our job both to supervise effectively and offer support to solicitors and their clients. Any external efforts to help us do that are welcome in my book.

We take our responsibilities as AML supervisor extremely seriously and have already demonstrated this with some great work, investment and collaboration with our members. We are stepping up and evolving our supervisory approach to ensure we comply with our obligations under the money laundering regulations. We are closely involved in various Government initiatives such as the “Flag it Up” campaign, and have recently launched a “reporting concerns” line to ensure solicitors, accredited paralegals and the wider legal sector can report suspicious activity where appropriate.

Recent press coverage suggests that estate agency group Countrywide has been hit with a £215,000 fine as part of a swoop by HMRC cracking down on money laundering in the property sector. Ben Wallace is quoted in the press as saying: “Criminals who seek to launder money should be in no doubt that they have nowhere to hide.” Money laundering is not a victimless crime, with “dirty cash” being reinvested in serious organised crime such as terrorism and drug and human trafficking.

AML is an issue that’s here to stay. We need to be prepared and expect further scrutiny and legislation, and we will be here to support and guide our members. We are a crucial line of defence, so keep lodging those SARS which are vital to identifying usable intelligence. We understand investment has been ring-fenced to improve the user experience.

Women in law, in pictures

On a lighter note, to mark International Women’s Day on 8 March we took part in a UK-wide photography project which saw women working in the legal profession or studying law pop into our offices to have their photo taken.

The photos will form part of a visual celebration of the First 100 Years project, which celebrates women in law across the UK and marks 100 years since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 paved the way for women to become lawyers for the first time. We also showcased inspirational women from the Scottish legal profession over the years on social media, including Madge Easton Anderson from Glasgow, the first woman to be admitted as a solicitor in Scotland, and the UK. See p 20 for a small selection of these truly amazing women.

Alison Atack is President of the Law Society of Scotland – President@lawscot.org.uk Twitter: @AtackAlison

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