In Industry Insights

The recent tribunal decision involving Dentons and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has sparked significant discussion within the legal sector, especially in the wake of AML fines imposed on Clyde & Co, Mishcon de Reya and countless other small and medium sized law firms. Are there questions to be asked about the effectiveness and direction of the SRA’s AML enforcement strategies?

A Setback for Enforcement?

The SRA has, over recent years, established itself as a stringent enforcer of the Money Laundering Regulations, frequently identifying and penalising what often appear to be minor administrative oversights. The decision to require the SRA to bear its own costs in the Dentons case may signal a call for a more judicious prosecutorial approach, emphasising thorough vetting of cases before proceeding to action.

This outcome might be interpreted as a beacon of hope for firms embroiled in SDT proceedings for more grave allegations, suggesting that the regulator’s grip, while tight on simpler AML offences, may not be as infallible when faced with more complex challenges.

Despite this, it’s crucial to note the SRA’s continued pursuit of broader enforcement powers, underscoring a regulatory intent to persist with or even escalate its vigilant oversight, despite the potential for caution induced by recent tribunal outcomes.

AML: A Top Priority for Regulators

The SRA’s dedication to AML oversight cannot be overstated. The regulator’s proactive approach, marked by regular audits and enforcement actions, signifies a clear priority. This is mirrored by governmental support, highlighting the critical nature of AML measures within the regulatory framework.

A constant stream of guidance, warning notes and thematic reviews is testament to the importance placed on AML supervision.

See the latest SRA sectoral risk assessment for the regulator’s guide to the latest emerging issues that law firms need to incorporate into their own firm-wide risk assessments. 

Compliance Concerns in Legal Services

The regulator’s stance suggests a significant compliance issue within the legal sector, a sentiment supported by findings such as the ineffectiveness of around half of client and matter risk assessments reported in 2023. This emphasis on stringent compliance often results in firms being penalised for procedural non-compliance, despite no evidence of actual money laundering or resultant harm.

This approach, arguably, strays from the intended risk-based methodology of the Regulations, emphasising administrative adherence over practical risk mitigation. The complexity of AML regulations and the stringent expectations placed on firms pose significant challenges, especially when individual SRA auditors may disagree with firms’ internal risk assessments or procedural implementations.

Navigating Compliance

AML compliance can resemble a complex jigsaw puzzle, with numerous elements that must align to form a cohesive compliance strategy. Starting with a firm-wide risk assessment to identify and prioritise AML risks is fundamental, influencing subsequent policies, procedures, and training initiatives. 

Ongoing supervision, ensuring policies are effectively implemented in practice, emerges as a critical, albeit challenging, component of compliance, highlighting the significance of leadership, culture, and individual responsibility in fostering a compliant environment.

Personal Reflections

This case intriguingly plays into the long-held narrative that regulators disproportionately target smaller practices over Big Law firms. It raises important questions about the balance between rigorous enforcement and the practical realities and challenges of compliance within the legal sector. It also highlights the need for a regulatory approach that not only penalises non-compliance but also understands and accommodates the complexities of legal practice.

As we await the tribunal’s detailed decision, the legal community remains engaged in a broader conversation about the effectiveness and fairness of AML regulation and enforcement. The ultimate goal should be a regulatory framework that effectively deters financial crime without imposing undue burdens on the legal profession or compromising client service.

It is worth noting that the profession is invited to submit responses to an open government consultation on improving the effectiveness of the Money Laundering Regulations.

Recent Posts

Start typing and press Enter to search

Get your FREE COLP Insider email delivered fortnightly

We’ll never share your email address and you can opt out at any time, we promise


LSB reshaping legal services conferenceGuillaume Kitumaini