A French lawyer challenges AML rules in the EU court of human rights
Michaud v France 6 December 2012 (Application no. 12323/11) (ECHR)
THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CASE
- The applicant was born in 1947 and lives in Paris. He is a member of the Paris Bar and the Bar Council.
- He submitted that the European Union had adopted three Directives in succession aimed at preventing the use of the financial system for money-laundering.
The first (91/308/EEC of 10 June 1991) targets credit and financial institutions. It was amended by a Directive of 4 December 2001 (2001/97/EC) which, among other things, widened its scope to include professions outside the financial sector, including members of the independent legal professions. The third Directive (2005/60/EC of 26 October 2005) repealed the Directive of 10 June 1991, as amended, and reproduced and added to its content. The laws transposing these Directives – Law no. 2004-130 of 11 February 2004 in the case of the Directive of 10 June 1991, as amended – and the regulations implementing that law – Decree no. 2006-736 of 26 June 2006 – have been incorporated into the Monetary and Financial Code (for more details see sections III and IV below on relevant European Union and domestic law).
- These texts place lawyers under an “obligation to report suspicions” which the legal profession – who see it as a threat to professional privilege and the confidentiality of exchanges between lawyers and their clients – have constantly criticised, in particular through the National Bar Council.
- However, on 12 July 2007 the National Bar Council took a “decision adopting regulations on internal procedures for implementing the obligation to combat money-laundering and terrorist financing, and an internal supervisory mechanism to guarantee compliance with those procedures” (published in the Official Gazette on 9 August 2007). In so doing it was effectively applying section 21-1 of the Law of 31 December 1971 reforming certain legal and judicial professions, which empowered it, with due respect for the laws and regulations in force, to take general measures to unify the rules and practices of the legal profession.
- Article 1 of the above-mentioned decision states that “all lawyers who are members of a French Bar” are bound by these rules of their profession when, in the course of their business activity, they participate for and on behalf of their client in any financial or real-estate transaction or assist their client in the preparation or execution of transactions relating to:
- The buying and selling of real estate or businesses; (2) the management of funds, securities or other assets belonging to the client; (3) the opening of current accounts, savings accounts or securities accounts; (4) the organisation of the contributions required to create companies; (5) the formation, administration or management of companies; and (6) the formation, administration or management of trusts governed by a foreign legal system, or of any other similar structure. They are not bound by these rules “when acting as legal counsel or in the context of judicial proceedings” in connection with one or other of the above activities (Article 2).
- The regulations establish in particular that lawyers must always “show due diligence” in this context and “develop internal procedures” to ensure compliance with, inter alia, the laws and regulations governing the reporting of suspicions (Article 3), indicating in particular the procedure to be followed when an operation appears to warrant such reporting (Article 7).
More specifically, they must adopt written rules describing the steps to be taken (Article 5). They must also ensure that the regulations are properly applied in their structure, and that lawyers and staff receive the necessary information and training, tailored to their particular activities (Article 9), and set up an in-house monitoring system (Article 10). At the same time, the regulations also specify that “lawyers must, in all circumstances, ensure that professional confidentiality is respected” (Article 4).
- Failure to comply with these regulations can entail disciplinary sanctions and even being struck off (Articles 183 and 184 of Decree no. 91‑1197 of 27 November 1991 organising the legal profession).
- On 10 October 2007, considering that it undermined lawyers’ freedom to exercise their profession and the essential rules regulating that profession, the applicant appealed to the Conseil d’Etat to have the decision set aside. He submitted that there was no law or regulation giving the National Bar Council regulatory powers in such matters as money-laundering. Furthermore, pointing out that the decision concerned required lawyers to adopt in-house procedures to ensure compliance with the instructions on the reporting of suspicions, subject to disciplinary sanctions, and that the term “suspicions” was not defined, he complained that this was in breach of the requirement of legal certainty inherent in Article 7 of the Convention.
In addition, referring to the André and Another v. France judgment (no. 18603/03, 24 July 2008), he contended that the regulations adopted by the National Bar Council were incompatible with Article 8 of the Convention, as the “obligation to report suspicions” jeopardised legal professional privilege and the confidentiality of exchanges between lawyer and client. Lastly, under Article 267 of the Treaty on European Union, he asked the Conseil d’Etat to refer the matter to the Court of Justice of the European Union for a preliminary ruling on the conformity of the “declaration of suspicion of criminal offence” with Article 6 of the Treaty on European Union and Article 8 of the Convention.
- By a judgment of 23 July 2010, the Conseil d’Etat rejected the bulk of the submissions in the application.
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