Regular readers of this blog may know that I am a magistrate here in England. (For overseas readers, here is the general explanation from the government website: “Magistrates are volunteers who hear cases in courts in their community. Each case is usually heard by three magistrates. A legal adviser in the court gives advice on the law and makes sure the magistrates follow the right procedures.”) It is fascinating work, not least because of what you learn about human nature. For instance, I am now much more compassionate than I was, as I see that the majority of people who break the law do so through inadequacy and poor decision-making rather than because they are inherently bad. (All bets are off for money launderers, of course…) And you also learn to decipher what people are saying. So when someone prefaces their answer with, “To be perfectly honest…”, they are usually fibbing. They are over-stressing their honesty, rather than assuming – as their listeners assume also – that the default is for them to tell the truth.
So it amused me highly to read this earlier this week in “The Daily Mash” (a satirical website parodying current news stories – many of them containing comments from experts at the Institute of Studies…): “Anything described as ‘totally legal’ is always the wrong thing to do, it has emerged. Researchers highlighted tax avoidance schemes, sex with 16-year-olds and killing a Scotsman with a bow and arrow in York as examples of legal yet highly dubious behaviour. Professor Henry Brubaker of the Institute for Studies said: ‘There is this weird category of things which the law reckons are fine but on consideration you have to say, [stuff] the law, you shouldn’t be doing that. In each case the person suggesting the wrong action will casually emphasise how it is totally legal. That is your trigger phrase, where you know you are being presented with a clear choice between good or evil.’ 26-year-old Tom Booker said: ‘We were going on holiday to America so we had the cat put down to save paying for a boarding kennel. Totally legal. I know it is wrong, but that is not the point. You don’t go to prison just for doing something wrong.’”
It could be a handy training tool. Advise your staff that if they are conducting due diligence and the client stresses repeatedly that their structure/transaction/unusual request is “totally legal”, this could suggest that it is teetering delicately on the line and therefore worthy of a closer look.