Yesterday, the Assets Recovery Agency has been set up to seize the wealth of previously untouchable “Mr Bigs” who have not been convicted of an offence but whose way of life is paid for by crime. It will take on cases referred to it by UK police forces, Customs & Excise, the Inland Revenue, the National Crime Squad and the Serious Fraud Office. Its work is considered so sensitive that its agents will be allowed to use pseudonyms – including in court – and the Government refuses to say where it is based.
The Assets Recovery Agency (ARA) will not have to prove that the people whom it prosecutes are guilty of any crime. The onus will be on the man with the Jaguar, the gold bracelet and the holiday home in Ocho Rios to show that he came by his luxuries legally. Under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, which set up the agency, cases will be decided on the balance of probabilities, rather than the stricter criminal test of certainty beyond reasonable doubt.
The prosecutors will need only to accuse someone of living ‘above their means’ to bring them to court (without a jury, I might add), if they have “reasonable grounds” for believing that their wealth had been acquired illegally. However, it is the owner’s responsibility to prove otherwise and assets could be seized on the “balance of probabilities”. This is a far cry from the “beyond reasonable doubt” requirements of the criminal courts. It will, therefore, be possible for the civil courts to seize the assets of someone found not guilty in the criminal courts. Oh, and the presumption of innocence has gone out of the window long before the judge’s ‘balancing act’.
David Blunkett, the Home Secretary elaborates:
The agency is coming after the homes, yachts, mansions and luxury cars of the crime barons. This is also about cracking down on local crooks well known in their communities for their flash cars, designer clothes and expensive jewellery but no legitimate means of income.
And Jane Earl, director of the ARA reassures:
If you have a large house and five places in the Caribbean, with no visible means of support, no rich aunties who have recently died leaving the odd five million and no successful lottery tickets, it will not do to say that someone gave you the money.
It is as if all their hatred is directed not so much against criminals as against the trappings of wealth. If Mr Blunkett and Ms Earl think they have a case against somebody, they should be made to prove it.
Oh, but they can’t do that because the justice system is so screwed up. Let’s hire some anonymous thugs then. First we get the Bad Big Criminals and then let’s see what we can do without any competition…