The National Crime Agency (NCA) announced on 14 August 2019 that it has obtained account freezing orders (AFOs) over eight bank accounts containing more than £100m.
In April this year we published an article exploring AFOs and the law underpinning them. At that time, the most significant AFOs obtained by the NCA were over a wide range of bank accounts with approximately £3.6m in them. This latest set of AFOs therefore represents a significant leap in terms of the value being targeted and is by far the largest amount of money frozen since the powers were introduced by the Criminal Finances Act 2017 (the powers are now contained in Chapter 3B of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002).
At this stage the NCA has provided little information on the background and reasons for the AFOs. However, in order to obtain an AFO a court must be satisfied there are reasonable grounds for suspecting the money held in the account is "recoverable property" or is intended by any person for use in unlawful conduct. In this case, it is interesting to therefore note that the NCA described the funds as being "suspected to have derived from bribery and corruption in an overseas nation". This is consistent with previous AFOs, which we observed in our article also had foreign aspects to them and were used to seize money derived from criminal conduct.
It remains to be seen whether the NCA will now be able to progress to forfeiting these accounts and seizing the significant amount of money contained within them. To do this, a court will have to be satisfied that the property is in fact derived from criminal conduct (is "recoverable property") rather than the lower threshold of merely having suspicion, which is what is required to grant the freezing order in the first instance. The NCA will now no doubt be focused on gathering evidence to try to prove their suspicion.
In any event, this marks a notable shift in the NCA's approach to suspicious funds held in the UK and their use of new powers. As we similarly predicted in April, we can expect to see much more use of these powers in the future.
“In the last year, the NCA has used new powers such as Unexplained Wealth Orders and Account Freezing Orders to target suspected illicit assets, and we are already seeing some far reaching impact of this activity.”