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The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is planning a 1510% increase in the fines it can levy for misconduct by wealthy solicitors – from £50,000 to £805,000 – and wants to be able to fine firms 5% of turnover, following a huge crackdown on anti-money laundering failures.
After new AML rules were introduced in 2017, the SRA - the UK’s solicitors’ watchdog - launched a clampdown on those firms not meeting their regulations, and an investigation by City A.M reveals that this has resulted in a 500% increase in the number of fines it handed out to law firms.
The SRA regulates more than 11,000 law firms in the UK and, according to a freedom of information request filed by City A.M, in 2017/18 gave out just six fines but by 2019/20 this more than doubled to 16, and in 2020/21 more than doubled again to 37.
The investigation also reveals that the total value of fines against law firms has more than tripled over the same period, from £7,000 in 2017/18 to £299,925 last year – although this was skewed by £200k+ fine against law firm Mishcon de Reya.
Most firms were only fined in the region of £800, and the SRA wants to be able to fine law firms much larger amounts if they do fail to meet their AML obligations.
Last month, the Ministry of Justice increased the maximum amount the SRA can fine solicitors at traditional law firms from £2,000 to £25,000, but now, the SRA wants to take this further by raising the maximum fine to 5% of turnover.
As part of its consultation into financial penalties, other proposed changes include introducing fixed penalties for lower-level breaches and taking into account the income of individuals when setting fines, with proposals to move the current maximum fine level for wealthier solicitors from £50,000 to £805,000.In a statement, the SRA said ”the aims of our reforms are to resolve cases much more quickly, potentially reducing the costs, delays, resources and stress for those subject to our procedures, as well as improving public protection.”
Martin Cheek, Managing Director at AML experts SmartSearch says the recent clampdown, the sixfold rise in the number of fines imposed, and the SRA’s plans to increase its powers when it comes to fine amounts means solicitors across the UK should be looking at their AML procedures as a matter of urgency.
“The SRA has shown through its recent actions and this consultation that it is serious about AML, and will take action against any firms that do not comply.
“Up until now, the penalties have been relatively low, but the SRA has been ramping up activity over the past five years - and has recently been given the authority to increase its finding power from £2,000 to £25,000; if these current proposals come into force, the SRA will be able to levy even larger fines on solicitors that fail to meet their AML obligations.
“Therefore, we are urging all law firms that do not have proper procedures in place to remedy that sooner rather than later, or risk irreparable fines and reputational damage.”