THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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Trusted Advisor or snitch?

Crop0001 When I joined the legal profession more than 20 years ago, we were trained to regard even a client's most trivial secret as a sacred trust. So seriously did we take it that we could not even name someone as our client without his or her permission. I have always upheld this standard. I have never even told my wife about the things I learn at work; fascinating though they often are.

Of late, however, British lawyers have joined the secret police. Under the Proceeds of Crime Act,2002 for example, we are obliged to file "Suspicious Activity Reports" (SARs) to SOCA, which is Britain's nearest functional equivalent to the FBI. Why do I say "secret police?" Because we are not allowed to tell the client that we have filed (or plan to file) a SAR. If asked directly, the legislation effectively requires us to lie. I was never comfortable with the fact that the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, 1974 sanctioned a lie. Yet I have lived long enough to see a statute make lying mandatory. O tempora, o mores.

How can a client rely on an advisor who is under an obligation (on pain of serious punishment) to betray his confidence? How can a lawyer advise a client who is afraid to discuss actions he fears may be criminal, if he is under a duty to report his suspicions that the client has already overstepped the mark? So much for the special nature of the lawyer/client relationship.

Not that your lawyer is your only problem. Your accountant, tax advisor and many others you may think you can trust with your private business are just as likely to denounce you. Only 14% of non-banking sector denunciations are made by solicitors. So far has the legal profession slipped from its high ideals, however, that its own journal, The Law Gazette, boasts that "Solicitors lead way on fraud reporting" (see my reproduction of the cover of the 29 November 2007 edition - click to enlarge)

The most likely person to snitch, however, is your banker. This government sees the banks as key agents in law enforcement and has as much respect for the banker/customer relationship as for the formerly sacred one between lawyer and client (i.e. none at all).

Secret denunciations were of course a major tool of State repression (and personal vengeance) in the Soviet Union and other totalitarian regimes. I ask again. If Labour is not building a police state, why does so much of its legislation give that impression?