With increased political tensions between the UK and Russia, there has been a lot of attention given to what the press has termed “McMafia” orders, or to give them their correct title, unexplained wealth orders (UWOs).
The public and law enforcement in the UK have become increasingly concerned at the prospect of the UK becoming a safe haven for overseas corrupt public officials and domestic serious organised criminals who use the proceeds of crime to buy up lots of real estate, and other assets in the UK, seemingly with impunity.
The answer, as far as the UK government is concerned, has been to increasingly legislate for more accessible and easier to obtain orders that can put the emphasis on the individual to explain their wealth and, if appropriate, go on to possibly freeze and seize their assets.
The UWO is one of these new types of order that is designed to assist UK law enforcement to target corrupt public officials and serious organised criminals and thereby tackle the general public’s concerns.
A UWO requires a person who is reasonably suspected of involvement in, or of being connected to a person involved in, serious crime to explain their interests in particular property and to explain how the property was obtained, where there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the respondent’s known lawfully obtained income would be insufficient to allow the respondent to obtain the property.
They can also be obtained against politically exposed persons or those associated with them, i.e. overseas politicians/officials and their associates from outside the European Economic Area (EEA).
A good example of how such an order could operate against a politically exposed person (PEP) or their associates is the facts of the first UWO obtained against Zamira Hajiyeva.
Ms Hajiyeva is the wife of Jahangir Hajiyev, who is the former chairman of the International Bank of Azerbaijan.
He was imprisoned in 2016 for 15 years after being convicted of being part of a major fraud against the bank that resulted in hundreds of millions of pounds being embezzled from the bank.
As a former chairman of a state-owned bank, the argument is that he was a PEP and that the wife of a PEP would qualify as a close associate, thereby being susceptible to a UWO order. In that case, the allegation is that Ms Hajiyeva had, in effect, laundered the proceeds of the bank fraud by obtaining property in the UK.
There are a number of important points that make UWOs an arguably much more effective investigative tool than previous forms of law enforcement orders.
The first is that the burden of proof to obtain an order is much lower than that required in a trial of an issue in either civil or criminal proceedings.