The regulators of the legal profession in Canada and the Canadian government have embarked on a new chapter in the fight against money laundering and the financing of terrorist activities. Late last Spring Canada’s Minister of Finance announced the creation of a joint working group comprised of representatives of the government and the Federation of Law Societies of Canada. The working group, which held its first meeting at the end of June 2019, is intended as forum to explore issues related to money laundering and terrorist financing that may arise in legal practice and to strengthen information sharing between the regulators of the legal profession and the government of Canada. The group, co-chaired by an official of the Department of Finance and the Federation’s Executive Director of Policy and Public Affairs, will meet quarterly.

The creation of the joint working group follows a decade-long legal battle in which the Federation argued that attempts to subject members of the legal profession to the government’s AML regime interfered with solicitor-client privilege and the duties owed by legal counsel to their clients. A February 2015 decision from the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the Federation’s arguments finding that as applied to members of the legal profession, the AML regime was unconstitutional.

Canada’s legal regulators have engaged for many years in regulating the risks of money laundering and terrorism financing in the practice of law. Two model rules, aimed at limiting the handling of cash by members of the legal profession and ensuring legal counsel engage in due diligence in identifying their clients, have been the cornerstone of the regulators’ anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism financing initiatives. The Cash Transactions Rule was adopted in 2004, and the Client Identification and Verification Model Rule was adopted in 2008. Both were implemented by all Canadian law societies. Those rules were updated with amendments adopted by the Federation in late 2018. A new Model Trust Accounting Rule that restricts the use of the trust accounts of members of the legal profession as part of the law society regulations aimed at fighting money laundering and terrorist financing was adopted at the same time.

In the years following the court victory, the Federation encouraged the government to recognize the regulatory initiatives of the Law Societies and to see the regulators as partners in the fight against money laundering in Canada. Faced with criticism from the Financial Action Task Force over the exclusion of legal counsel from the legislative AML regime, the government was initially focused on the suggestion in the Supreme Court’s decision that it might be possible to develop constitutionally-compliant AML regulations governing members of the legal profession. The new joint working group and the discussions leading to its creation mark a significant shift in the government’s approach to this issue. The government has made it clear that it is interested in working closely with the Federation and the law societies on the anti-money laundering file indicating an understanding of the unique position of the legal profession and the duties that members of the profession owe to their clients.

It is expected that officials from Canada’s financial intelligence agency (FINTRAC) and federal law enforcement agencies will join representatives of the Federation and the Canadian departments of Finance and Justice on the joint working group. The next meeting of the working group is scheduled for November 2019.

Author: Frederica Wilson
Executive Director, Policy and Public Affairs and Deputy CEO, Federation of Law Societies of Canada

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