Unlawful Search Warrant
The High Court recently ruled that a warrant that had been issued for the search of a professional accountant's office was unlawful as it did not properly specify the material the police could seize nor did the police comply with the correct procedures when they seized confidential material.
The accountant was the company secretary, and ran the registered office, of a company associated with suspected fraud although he played no part in the management of the company. The accountant also acted for a large number of unconnected companies, offering tax, accounting and corporate services. The police were granted a warrant to search for documents and records relating to high value financial transactions and were authorised to enter the accountant's premises to search for the material in respect of which the application was made. When the search was carried out the police removed all of the client files from the accountancy practice including confidential documents relating to companies unconnected with the investigation.
The High Court addressed two points in the case. First, the Court considered that the warrant to search for documents relating to "high value financial transactions" was too wide and vague: one person's high value transaction is another person’s low value transaction. The law also requires that the items sought must be specified in the warrant and this had not been done in this case. Secondly, the Court was concerned that the individual in this case was a professional accountant and some of the documents in his possession were confidential between him and his clients. There are additional requirements for the seizure of such documents which had not been met in this case and so the magistrates' court had no authority to issue the warrant.
When businesses are searched and documents seized it can be very damaging to relationships with clients. It is vital that material unconnected to the investigation is not removed and that any material that is seized is returned as soon as possible to enable your business to continue.
If you are a professional served with a search warrant it is important that you obtain legal advice as soon as possible. There are complex requirements and procedures that must be met and complied with for the search to be lawful and these are even more stringent if you, as a professional, hold confidential client information.
Irwin Mitchell has a significant amount of experience of searches carried out by prosecuting authorities including the Serious Fraud Office, HMRC and FSA. We have offices across the country and are able to respond quickly to your needs wherever your business is based.
If you have any questions regarding the issues raised in the article regarding search warrants please contact Sarah Wallace or Joanne Hall on 0370 1500 100 or 020 7421 3883.