Wealth can add an extra layer of complexity when it comes to navigating the legal system, writes Ben Rose
Wealthy people are, in one sense, at an advantage in our criminal justice system as they can afford the best legal representation. In another sense, however, they may be more vulnerable than most.
As a criminal defence lawyer specialising in representing HNW clients, it is clear to me that the police sometimes pursue wealthy suspects with far more enthusiasm than in any ‘ordinary’ case.
Perhaps it is because they are enthused by the prospect of a well-known ‘scalp’; some police forces have pushed their enquiries into professionally-successful people beyond that which is proper. Investigations that should have ended in their earliest stages drag on for months, either because the police refuse to admit initial suspicions were wrong, or because they are frightened of making a ‘controversial’ decision they suspect will attract critical attention.
The recent Cliff Richard and Carl Beech scandals are cases in point. Both investigations should arguably have been stopped in their tracks within weeks. Instead they gained momentum, with considerable police resources pointlessly thrown into investigating innocent men. One of the consequences, for Richard and also for the various high-profile victims of Beech’s lies, is significant reputational damage.
Indeed, reputation lies close the heart of the problems faced by HNWs who find themselves caught up in a police investigation. An unblemished public reputation is, for many HNWs, essential to maintaining their livelihood. Damage to their personal brand may have significant and immediate negative financial repercussions, which in some instances turn downright disastrous.
At the same time, the fact that someone involved in a police investigation is wealthy is often the main factor determining whether the story attracts any media attention. The traditional news editor’s maxim ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ (used to justify filling newspaper pages with details of the most gruesome crimes) has now shifted to a news agenda focused on celebrity and wealth. Today the motto seems to be ‘if they’ve got dough, we want to know’.
Add in the widely-held belief that there is ‘no smoke without fire’, and we have a recipe for unnecessary reputational damage.
But it is not the case that anyone accused of a crime faces certain reputational ruin. There is a great deal the properly-represented HNW can do to mitigate – or even obviate – the dangers they face at a very early stage.
It is far from inevitable that a police investigation will lead to charge. I have represented many clients whose cases have been dropped swiftly after the police received our robust initial defence with the result that the person’s anonymity is preserved.
It is also possible, in certain circumstances, to leverage a client’s reputational vulnerability in their favour. I have previously worked with police to arrange for particularly high-profile clients to be interviewed in anonymous, neutral locations – well away from any police station where their presence would be more likely to be noticed, and leaked to the press.
In particularly sensitive matters the police have agreed to communicate with me only via special secure channels. Being able to achieve these types of pre-trial results depends partly on professional relationships, but mainly on having a detailed knowledge of how police operate – something which only comes with long experience of working in this area.
My advice to any HNW facing the prospect of criminal investigation is not to panic. Wealth does confer advantages in criminal defence. But it also brings challenges. Knowing what these challenges are – and taking early steps to mitigate them – is the key to any successful defence.
Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Nathan Gallahan @fairchild.af.mil
Ben Rose is founding partner of Hickman & Rose solicitors