SARs and confidentiality—law firms

The following Practice Compliance practice note provides comprehensive and up to date legal information covering:

  • SARs and confidentiality—law firms
  • Client confidentiality
  • SAR confidentiality
  • The NCA
  • How might a SAR be disclosed?
  • Freedom of Information and data protection
  • Data subject access requests
  • Disclosure required by law
  • Fair administration of justice
  • Shah v HSBC
  • More...

SARs and confidentiality—law firms

Issues of confidentiality arise in two different respects in terms of suspicious activity reports (SARs):

  1. your duty of confidentiality to the client

  2. the confidentiality of the SAR itself

This Practice Note discusses both aspects.

Client confidentiality

You are professionally and legally obliged to keep the affairs of your clients confidential and to ensure your staff do the same. The obligations extend to all matters revealed to you from whatever source, including by a client, or someone acting on the client's behalf.

You must keep the affairs of clients confidential unless:

  1. disclosure is required or permitted by law, or

  2. the client consents

See subtopic: Confidentiality and disclosure.

In exceptional circumstances this general obligation of confidence may be overridden.

The duty of confidentiality is specifically overridden by law in the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (POCA 2002), a disclosure (effectively a suspicious activity report (SAR) to the National Crime Agency (NCA)) is not to be taken to breach any restriction on the disclosure of information (however imposed).

In other words, you do not breach any rule which would otherwise restrict a disclosure of confidential information eg your professional duty relating to client confidentiality. This is reinforced in the SRA Standards and Regulations 2019.

Remember though that certain communications cannot be disclosed, ie, those protected by legal professional privilege (LPP). See Practice Note: SAR reporting—flowchart and subtopic: Privilege.

SAR confidentiality

SARs are confidential documents,

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