District Judge Vanessa Baraitser said that continuing to conceal the couple’s identities would be a disproportionate interference with the principle of open justice as she lifted an anonymity order protecting their names.
The judge — who was making her ruling at Westminster magistrates court in response to an application by the Evening Standard backed by the National Crime Agency — added that there were also no grounds for holding any of a forthcoming forfeiture hearing involving the “laundromat” couple in secret.
Instead, full details of the allegations against them will be made public. In a concession to the couple, the judge granted a seven day “stay” on naming the couple — who own several multi-million pound London properties and face the seizure of around £6.5 million in their bank accounts — to allow them to seek a judicial review of her decision.
The pair’s lawyers have said they want a High Court injunction and permission for judicial review on the grounds that lifting anonymity will interfere with other proceedings. But if their bid fails the couple’s names will finally be made public next week.
The couple, who can only be referred to as X and Y, are accused by the National Crime Agency of using a complex web of “brass plate” companies in locations ranging from the Seychelles to Potters Bar to launder illicit money made by the “ruling elite” in Azerbaijan.
The NCA alleges that the money was moved via banks in Estonia and Latvia into accounts at Coutts, Barclays, Lloyds, Santander and Metro Bank and told a previous court hearing that allegedly fake invoices for £500 million worth of steel were one method used to mask the money transfers.
It has also disclosed that several of the companies involved in transferring money to the couple have been identified as involved in the Azerbaijan laundromat — a scheme under which billions of pounds made via corruption was moved by the Azeri elite to the West to buy property and fund their lifestyles overseas.
In her ruling today, Judge Baraitser says that there is a “public interest in informed public debate” about account forfeiture orders.
She adds: “Such debate is stimulated and enhanced by the identities of the parties being revealed… and, in accordance with the usual principle of open justice the public has a right to know who they are.
“In this case the press has a legitimate journalistic purpose in reporting these proceedings, namely to inform the public about the process of forfeiture and to contribute to public debate about the flow of “dirty” money into the United Kingdom and its laundering through our financial institutions.
“In all of the circumstances, I have concluded that an anonymity order preventing the disclosure of their names would now be a disproportionate interference with the principle of open justice and with article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. I am satisfied that lifting anonymity is both proportionate and necessary.”
The judge points out that the Evening Standard had submitted that its “purpose in reporting these proceedings is to contribute to public debate, in this case the use of the UK’s financial systems to launder large sums of money derived from unlawful sources in Azerbaijan.”
She said this had not been contested by the couple’s lawyers and nor had the newspaper’s argument that the case also “raises important questions about the safeguards that are in place against such activity, and about the visa policy operated by the Home Office which enables access to the UK’s systems.”
She added that a previous judge had found that this newspaper had a “proper journalistic purpose” in wanting to report the proceedings and identify the couple.
Judge Baraitser said the couple, who had originally sought a fully private forfeiture hearing which the press would have been unable to report, had also provided no evidence to support a subsequent application for proceedings to be conducted partially behind closed doors.
She said there was no reason to allow this, stating in her judgment that: “The burden of displacing the general rule as to publicity lies on the Respondents [X and Y].... and there is no evidence before me which would justify a derogation from the usual principle of open justice.
“As no substantive reasons have been advanced to depart from the usual principle I reject the application that the forfeiture hearing, or any part of it, should be heard in private.”
This newspaper has been fighting for nearly two years to name the couple as part of a court battle that is also intended to make it easier for the media to report future “dirty money” forfeiture cases.
The couple deny wrongdoing and are contesting the forfeiture of their accounts.