All of a sudden politicians, public figures, and oligarchs – such as Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Ignor Shuvalov and former Nigerian Oil Minister Diezani Alison-Madueke – have to explain how they are able to afford the swanky apartments in London’s posh Mayfair neighborhood on their modest official salaries. This is due to the UK’s new Criminal Finances Act (CFA), which came into force in February and is meant to crack down on the flow of dirty money into the UK—a flow that has given London in particular a reputation as a “Death Star” of global kleptocracy. Most notably, the CFA adds a new investigative tool, the Unexplained Wealth Order (UWO), into the civil recovery regime. Originally proposed by Transparency International UK a few years ago, a UWO is an order granted by the High Court in cases where there are reasonable grounds to believe (1) the respondent owns some property worth more than £50,000; (2) either the respondent is a politically exposed person (PEP), or the respondent or a person connected to the respondent has been involved in a serious crime; and (3) respondent’s lawfully earned income would not be sufficient to obtain the property in question. If there are reasonable grounds to believe that each of these three conditions is satisfied, the High Court may issue an order requiring the respondent to provide information regarding the nature of her interests in the property in question and how she was able to lawfully obtained such property. If the respondent is unable to provide a reasonable explanation, the UK Government can subsequently initiate the civil forfeiture process and seize these assets.
Lauded as “a powerful new weapon in the anti-corruption arsenal,” UWOs are expected to be particularly helpful when there is no conviction against the respondents in their countries of origin, or when efforts to get a corrupt foreign government to cooperate with investigations have led to naught. Moreover, even though UWOs are a civil enforcement mechanism, the information they uncover may be useful in pursuing criminal investigations, and if respondents recklessly or knowingly make false statements or mislead the enforcement body in responding to an order, they may be criminally prosecuted. There’s already some evidence that the new law will make a difference: In March, a month after the promulgation of the CFA, two UWOs were issued requiring a tycoon in Central Asia to explain how he is able to afford real properties in the UK totaling £22 million.
Yet notwithstanding the enthusiasm for UWOs in some quarters, the effectiveness of the UFO mechanism is likely to be hampered by an important missing piece in the UK’s anticorruption framework, namely an effective means for ensuring genuine transparency regarding the beneficial ownership of real and movable property. Without knowing who really owns what, the new law is unlikely to realize its full potential, and indeed may not make much difference outside of a handful of cases involving particularly careless criminals.