Helping the police with their enquiries (or not)
I am occasionally asked by accountants what they should do if they are approached by the police in connection with a police investigation concerning a client.
I do sometimes think that accountants' brains desert them when they are questioned by a police officer. A lot of basic rules seem to be suddenly forgotten!
The first thing to remember is that your contractual and professional duty is to keep your clients' affairs confidential.
You wouldn't answer a question about your clients' affairs if you were asked by a stranger in the pub - so why behave differently if you are asked by a stranger in a blue uniform?
The golden rule therefore is to decline any invitation to volunteer information to the police.
By all means do this in a professional and courteous manner, explaining that your duty of client confidentiality and your contractual arrangements preclude you from answering police questions. Also do feel free to suggest to the police officer that if he were to obtain a court order, such as a production order under s345 Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, that would over-ride your professional ethics and contractual obligations and so would enable you to provide documents to the police. But in the absence of a court order you are unable to assist.
There are a couple of exceptional situations in which you are permitted to volunteer a limited amount of information to the police. One is where you have already submitted a Suspicious Activity Report to SOCA (under s330 PoCA 2002 / Money Laundering Regulations 2007) and the officer is simply asking for clarification of the content of that report. You may clarify the content of the report - but do not stray into volunteering additional information or documents.
The second exception is where the police investigation is into your own conduct. In these circumstances you are entitled to defend yourself (but do get independent legal advice before answering any police questions - and not from the same solicitor that the client uses!).
If and when the police do obtain a court order (and produce it to you) then do comply with it. A production order under s345 will normally require you to produce the documents referred to in the order to the police within 7 days. That may, and probably will, include your correspondence files and working papers as well as any of the client's records which you may be holding. (Please don't be tempted to 'polish' your working papers before handing them over - it's a police investigation, not a quality assurance check!)
But a production order does not require you to answer police questions (and you should not do so).
If the police invite you to make a written statemernt to accompany the documents then you should (politely) decline to do so.
Finally, do remember not to tell anyone outside your office (except your own legal advisers if you consult them) about the police investigation. That could amount to an offence under s333A or s342 PoCA 2002.
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