The fourth Unexplained Wealth Order (UWO) has been issued in the UK.  In this particular instance, a woman from Northern Ireland has had property assets worth £3.2 million in London and Northern Island frozen as part of an investigation by the National Crime Agency (NCA).

UWOs were introduced into the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 on 31 January 2008.  Having been described as an investigative tool, they do in fact extend beyond investigatory powers and require a person to explain and evidence the source of their apparent wealth, with the ultimate ability to confiscate any proven proceeds of crime using purely civil powers.  

UWOs can be made in relation to property and against a person where there is reasonable cause to believe that the person holds property worth more than £50,000 AND there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the known sources of the person's lawfully obtained income would have been insufficient for the purposes of enabling the person to obtain the property.

The UK's first UWO target was a Mrs Hajiyeva, originally from Azerbaijan and the wife of a jailed ex-state banker.  Mrs Hajiyeva used 54 credit cards to spend £16 million in Harrods over the course of a decade - the largest single spend being almost £450,000 at the Cartier till.  She now risks losing her £15 million Knightsbridge home and a Berkshire golf course if she fails to explain the source of her wealth to the High Court.  Her husband is serving a 15 year sentence in Azerbaijan for stealing millions from his state-controlled bank.  

Back in Northern Island, the woman in question (who has suspected links to paramilitaries and an association with individuals involved in cigarette smuggling) now has to explain how she financed the property purchases.  Those properties cannot be sold, transferred or dissipated while the investigation continues.  

With only four UWOs being issued since they were introduced 18 months ago, there has been a relatively slow uptake by the enforcement agencies who are able to bring applications for them.  As their broad reach into a person's affairs and strict confiscation abilities are recognised and highlighted, however, it is very likely that their use in investigations will become ever more prevalent.