John Binns of BCL Solicitors discusses how financial crime can be overcome, with reference to Interpol’s Operation Pangea

The challenges of tackling international financial crime with national law enforcement are legion, says John Binns, a partner in the financial crime team at BCL Solicitors.

However, Binns discusses Interpol’s Operation Pangea – which illustrates how financial crime can be overcome – in the context of the global fight against illicit medicines.

A world of problems

What can be done about the sale of illicit medicines? The question illustrates a familiar challenge in the world of law enforcement, in that a problem we as consumers and taxpayers can see as straightforwardly needing tough and enduring action is made harder to solve by two fundamental features of the landscape.

The first of these is legal complexity: even where the law clearly provides remedies against conduct, the overlapping provisions and procedures can be unhelpful. In the UK, for example, the starting point for tackling many drug sales, depending on their ingredients, may be controlled drugs offences. Counterfeit medicines may also breach intellectual property laws, which can be enforced either civilly or criminally. Some sales may defraud consumers or offend against unfair trading laws. And, of course, there are bespoke regimes for medicines (including natural and homoeopathic remedies) and medical devices.

Picking up the pieces

A related issue is the plethora of options for public sector enforcement, with local arrangements for policing and trading standards investigations supported (though sometimes patchily) by national ones for tackling online conduct and fraud. Specifically, in the pharmaceutical world, the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) effectively leads both in routine regulation of the sector and in criminal enforcement efforts when things go badly wrong.

Local, national, and regional agencies must join forces

The MHRA has also taken an effective lead in this sector on tackling the other fundamental problem of law enforcement, which is national borders. As is increasingly obvious, the nature of financial crime, of which illicit medicine sales are a prime example, is global, which positively demands that local, national, and regional agencies join forces to share information and coordinate enforcement efforts.

A joined-up approach

We do not, and indeed may never, have such a thing as a global police force. Instead, the role of Interpol is to help coordinate the efforts of national and supranational law enforcement agencies. Since 2006, the MHRA has worked with Interpol and various other agencies, including the EU’s Europol, to tackle illicit medicines and medical devices. This includes concerted days or weeks of action against suspected offenders and their assets, which are then publicly announced, most recently this summer. Under the surface, the work to produce this undeniably impressive feat is essentially about tackling those twin challenges of legal complexity and working across national borders. Among other things, this will necessarily involve consideration of data protection and procedural rights for suspects and others involved.

Importantly, the agencies involved are not limited to public-sector regulators and law enforcement. They also include private companies, whose financial interests of course are engaged in a big way, insofar as counterfeit medicines breach their intellectual property rights. Indeed, more broadly, the profits and reputation of the pharmaceutical sector generally are put at risk by those who sell medicines in breach of the rules. Involving them, therefore, makes sense on a principled basis, and undoubtedly helps with resourcing the work of agencies that may not otherwise be wallowing in money.

A global template?

So, is there anything in Operation Pangea that might point the way for other efforts to tackle financial crime? Are there other industries that might similarly be incentivised to cooperate with and fund law enforcement in this way, other categories of crime that require similar international coordination? Could, for example, the financial sector be brought into international efforts to combat frauds on COVID-19 support schemes or any offending that involves crypto assets, or sanctions evasion?

We must think more creatively

Such comparisons make for interesting thought experiments, with some instructive results. The immediate impact of bounce-back loans is on lending banks, but the government guarantees have made them squarely a public sector problem. Our response, so far, has been at a national level, perhaps assuming such crimes do not cross borders – but is this right? Are we doing enough to involve the financial regulators, or to work internationally, on crypto- and sanctions crime?

The problem of illicit medicines is not unique. But its features have made it a fertile breeding ground for a form of public-private, international cooperation that clearly has some potential. If there is a broader lesson, it may be that we must think more creatively, at the stage of devising national laws and systems that are susceptible to abuse, about whether and how they might also be susceptible to international coordination, and gold-standard global enforcement.

John Binns is a partner at BCL Solicitors LLP, specialising in financial crime.

Headshot of John Binns


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