Governments Use These Arrangements to Go After Citizens Overseas and Their Assets
Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties are agreements between countries to use government resources to investigate on behalf of another, requesting country. For example, if the US government is investigating a criminal case where the suspect is in Canada they can use the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty between the US and Canada to get the Canadian police to raid business and home premises to seize evidence that can be used at a future criminal trial.
Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties are a modern law enforcement tool. The first one was signed between the US and Switzerland in 1977. This allowed the US government to request information on Swiss bank accounts of suspected criminals long before they had tools like FATCA to snoop into our private affairs.
Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties are widely used by law enforcement agencies around the world. Recently the Portuguese government raided business premises of companies linked to Isabel Dos Santos, the daughter of Angola’s former president. Dos Santos is accused of various crimes by Angola. The Angolan authorities were able to get the Portuguese authorities to carry out raids on their behalf by using the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty between the countries.
The UK regularly asks the Spanish authorities to carry out raids on suspected British criminals based in Spain. This can range from drug dealers to white collar criminals.
Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties are widespread. But not ever country is covered. The US has 61 Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties. The UK has 42 Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties. That means most of the world does not have Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties.
What Can Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties be Used for?
Law Enforcement officials see MLATs as a key tool to fight against international crime. They can be used to:
Conduct raids on premises to gather evidence.
They are used to interview potential witnesses in a criminal case.
They can be used to freeze bank accounts and seize other assets suspected of being gained from criminal activity.
MLATs are used to obtain information from overseas banks.
MLATs can also be used for the service of documents such as witness citations and court orders.
Every Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty is different in its scope but most cover these activities.
Which Countries Don’t Have Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties?
MLATs are primarily between first world countries. They cover big trading zones like the US and the EU. Smaller countries are much less likely to have Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties. Many countries in Latin America and Asia have very few MLATs. Some countries that do have MLATs are unlikely to be helpful if the requesting country has bad political relations. Russia and the US have a MLAT but it’s difficult to see the Russian authorities and the American authorities co-operating. Many countries recently stopped co-operating with Hong Kong MLATs, including the US and the UK. Certain countries such as Panama and Uruguay only have mutual legal assistance for drugs related cases.
Are Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties Only Used in Criminal Matters?
MLATs are primarily used in criminal matters. There are different procedures in place for civil matters. Many countries recognise the judgments issued by foreign courts. UK court judgments are recognised in many of the British offshore tax havens such as the BVI. US judgments are recognised in other countries too. But this is not part of Mutual Legal Assistance.
Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties are often used against people with international lives who find themselves caught up in a government investigation. They are little understood compared to more long standing procedures such as extradition. Anyone involved in a government investigation should be aware of Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties and how they are used.