Professional enablers

‘Professional enablers’ pose a significant risk to the integrity of the UK’s economy and reputation as a global financial centre. We’ve worked with the government to agree a definition for anti-money laundering purposes. This guide sets out how to interpret the definition and what steps legal professionals can take in the fight against economic crime.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) and partners have highlighted the role of professional enablers at the heart of serious and organised crime impacting the UK.

Criminals exploit the specialist skills, knowledge and expertise of professionals to launder the proceeds of crime. They can also be used to enable crime, including:

  • corruption
  • modern slavery and human trafficking
  • organised immigration crime
  • drugs trafficking
  • child exploitation

The UK legal profession plays a key role in protecting the economy by tackling illicit finance and money laundering.

However, past rhetoric conflating lawyers with ‘professional enablers’ undermines confidence in the independence of the legal profession and wider justice system.

We hope this clear definition will ensure law enforcement targets the appropriate bad players, distinct from the wider legal profession. 

This guide should be read alongside our case studies on the consequences of not preventing economic crime for law firms and solicitors and individuals.

What is a professional enabler?

We worked with the National Economic Crime Centre (NECC), which consulted widely with the public and private sectors, to agree a definition for professional enablers.

This definition, published in the economic crime plan 2023/26, sets the foundation for the system response to tackle the threat:

“A professional enabler is an individual or organisation that is providing professional services that enable criminality.

Their behaviour is deliberate, reckless, improper, dishonest and/or negligent through a failure to meet their professional and regulatory obligations.”

‘Professional services’ includes but is not limited to:

  • legal professionals
  • accountants and bookkeepers
  • bank officials (including relationship managers)
  • investment advisers and wealth managers
  • company services including nominee directors/shareholders
  • trust and company service providers
  • payment service providers
  • estate agents and letting agents
  • family offices
  • art and auction houses

The term ‘professional enabler’ does not include other types of enablers of crime, such as:

  • technological enablers (like cryptocurrency traders), or
  • logistical enablers (like haulage companies)

The involvement of the legal profession is more critical than ever in the fight against professional enablers.

We hope this definition will ensure the profession’s role as a gatekeeper is better understood and supported across law enforcement and government. 

The definition should help government and law enforcement better understand the ways money laundering risks crystalise in different parts of the legal sector and where to focus supervisory activity.

Critical to this is government’s engagement with the legal sector, supervisors and law enforcement to obtain this firmer understanding to feed into legislative and other reforms.

How should the definition be interpreted?

Criminal complicity

The professional enabler is a part of a criminal network and has knowledge that they are facilitating criminal activity by providing their services.

Recklessness, improper and/or dishonest behaviour

The professional enabler fails to implement or adhere to proper controls and procedures to detect criminal activity, such as money laundering.

They are wilfully blind and take a ‘no questions asked’ policy. Their behaviour does not meet the standard expected of someone in a position of trust.

Negligence in meeting professional and/or regulatory obligations

The professional enabler fails to meet their obligations under the Money Laundering Regulations 2017 and/or falls short of the standards set by their regulator/supervisor.

This could include:

  • failures to conduct proper customer due diligence
  • failures to implement adequate controls and procedures to detect and deter money laundering
  • noncompliance with the supervisor’s code of ethics

Any individual or firm falling within the definition is vulnerable to criminal prosecution and regulatory/supervisory enforcement action which will significantly hinder, and in some cases stop, their ability to operate in the UK.

What can solicitors and firms do?

A professional will not fall outside the definition if they lack knowledge around the exact criminal activity being enabled.

It is vital that all professional service providers:

  • understand in depth who their customers are and for what purpose their services are being used, and
  • take steps to prevent their services from being exploited by criminals

The definition does not include legitimate professional service providers who:

  • take a thorough risk-based approach
  • implement robust controls and procedures to detect and deter criminal activity, and
  • do not accept businesses having identified that their services are being exploited to facilitate criminal activity

In May 2024, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) published analysis of the common services that professional enablers provide to sanctioned individuals. This included:

  • obscuring ownership through shell companies and through client proxies
  • channelling funds into desirable assets including real estate, artwork and precious minerals
  • diluting ownership stakes to avoid thresholds

RUSI identified 12 recommendations to help sanctions achieve their desired results.

Read RUSI's recommendations

What can SARs reporters do?

Suspicious activity reports (SARs) are a vital intelligence source.

The XXPRFXX glossary code identifies SARs related to professional enablers.

A UK Financial Intelligence Unit (UKFIU) review of all XXPRFXX SARs submitted in 2022 found that 66% had the incorrect glossary code.

Given how many SARs are made, it is important the correct glossary code is applied to enable efficient use of resource to assess and highlight relevant SARs.

Accurate use of the glossary code helps equip law enforcement and regulators to identify and respond to enabling activity by highlighting how the threat of professional enablers is impacting the UK.

As a basic guide when making a SAR, it should include, wherever possible:

  • an explanation of why a subject is thought to be a professional enabler
  • the services being provided (for example accountancy, insolvency, audit, company formation, property conveyance, legal services)
  • a description of the suspicion surrounding the services being provided, and whether the professional appears to be wittingly or unwittingly involved in facilitating criminal activity
  • any indicators that suggest the professional is complicit in providing their services to facilitate criminal activity
  • any indicators that suggest the professional is negligent in complying with their anti-money laundering obligations and/or complying with expected professional standards
  • if known, the professional service provider’s respective regulator and/or supervisory body

Indicators of professional enabler activity can include:

  • setting up trusts believed to be an attempt to conceal criminal proceeds
  • solicitor using client accounts to launder suspected proceeds of crime
  • accountant signing off company accounts believed to be false or do not reflect the activity observed on a bank account
  • mortgage broker submitting applications having not conducted effective due diligence checks such as proof of identity/earnings
  • provision of services to individuals/companies subject to adverse media reporting indicating involvement in criminal activity
  • incorporation of large companies or investment management companies at residential addresses
  • prolific incorporation of companies over a short period of time where the company formation agent does not appear to have conducted proper customer due diligence checks
  • incorporation of what appear to be shelf companies
  • setting up complex corporate and/or trust structures that do not appear to have a sound economic or business rationale

The NECC and UKFIU are working with SARs reporters to improve the quality of intelligence reported in SARs.

What is law enforcement doing?

The NCA has committed under the NCA strategy 2023/28 to tackle professional enablers of serious and organised crime.

The NCA looks to tackle those enabling the activities of the highest harm organised crime groups (OCGs), whilst local policing looks to take a robust approach to professional enablers.

There are a range of disruption opportunities available to law enforcement as well as regulators and supervisors which can bolster the UK’s response. 

The NECC has implemented a refreshed professional enablers strategy to drive the law enforcement response to the threat.

The NECC is working with UK government, regulators, supervisors, and the private sectors to establish and implement a cross-system strategy to tackle the threat.

Its focus is on increasing the effective flow of intelligence between law enforcement, supervisors and the private sector, to prevent professional services from being exploited in serious and organised crime.

Find out more

As your professional body, we’re here to help you keep ahead of your regulatory obligations and minimise risk with a package of expert guidance, advice and resources.

Explore our case studies on the consequences of not preventing economic crime for law firms and solicitors and individuals.

Explore our anti-money laundering resources

Find out what to include in a suspicious activity report

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