Modern confiscation in the UK can be divided into three main phases lasting about 15 years each. From 1971 to 1986 (instrumentalities only), 1986 to 2002 (direct proceeds), 2003 to 2017 (direct, indirect and criminal lifestyle proceeds).
The modern era started with the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1971 which allowed for drugs and drug paraphenalia (i.e. instrumentalities) to be forfeit. The equivalent power in non-drugs cases to forfeit the instruments used to commit crime was the 1973 Power of Criminal Courts Act 1973. Items of value were forfeit to the police, this included cash.
This era came to an end with Operation Julie, the first major case against illegal drug manufacture in the UK. Arrests in 1977 led to a failed attempt in 1981 to confiscate about a £1m – the direct proceeds of crime. Sir Derek Hodgson’s Committee recommended better law and the result was the Drug Trafficking Offences Act 1986, and the Criminal Justice Act 1988.
For the next fiteen years considerable efforts were made to try and make the law work, in particular the focus moved from the mere instrumentalities to the proceeds of crime. Specialised police financial investigation units were established, the law was tweaked using the Proceeds of Crime Act 1993, the Drug Trafficking Act 1994, and the Criminal Justice Acts of 1993 and 1996. None of it worked, the average annual receipts of all UK agencies combined (not including Scotland) were just £15m per year (source: an FOIA request).
The rise of crime throughout the 1980s and 1990s meant that crime was high on the agenda of the new government elected in 1997. This coincided, importantly, with the passing of the Proceeds of Crime Act in Ireland, which provided a model for the UK. The result was the Prime Minister’s Performance and Innovation Unit report in 2000, which presaged the Proceeds of Crime Act, 2002. Over the next ten years the average annual receipts leapt to £130m. Tens of thousands of criminals lost their assets and a working regime was born.
Asset recovery continued to rise until 2017, but is now falling. It is early to say but we appear to be entering a different era, where the constant rise in value of confiscated assets cannot be assumed.