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Law firms to help police tackle cyber fraud

19th Aug 2016

Private law firms will be hired by police to pursue suspects of fraud  for profit, under a new scheme to effectively target cyber criminals and fraudsters. Fraud is now the biggest type of crime, estimated to cost £193bn a year.

The Office for National Statistics said in July that there had been more than 5.8m incidents of cybercrime in the past year, enough to virtually double the headline crime rate in England and Wales. In a pilot project by the City of London police, officers will give law firms details of suspects and cases. The firms will then use civil courts to seize suspect’s assets. If unsuccessful, police could decide to leave it at that or pursue the case themselves through the criminal courts.

Currently, police pursue fraudsters by prosecuting them in the criminal courts, needing to prove their case beyond reasonable doubt. After conviction, a lengthy process starts to seize the proceeds of crime, which can take years. Police believe some suspects use the delay to hide their assets.

Under the new scheme, a law firm will pursue the suspect in the civil courts before any conviction and possibly even without a criminal charge. The burden of proof is lower in civil courts, and they will only have to show that the suspect stole the money on the balance of probabilities.

Katie Wheatley, joint head of criminal law at Bindmans, a London law firm, expressed unease over the proposals; she said they gave police “what they would regard as an easy deterrent, without having the inconvenience of proving an offence to a criminal standard”. Wheatley also noted that the plan risked creating a conflict between private firms’ profit motive and the fairness of the process.

There are two main downsides to the scheme: If the suspect appeals and wins, or is cleared in a criminal case, then the money seized has to be repaid with interest added. As well as this, the transfer of what was essentially punishment would be carried out through the state system, with established methods of accountability, to private firms, where it would be done for profit.

The experiment, which is backed by the government and being closely watched by other law enforcement agencies, is expected to lead to cases reaching civil courts this year or early next year.