Businesses with international supply chains should be aware of the recent UK High Court case brought by the World Uyghur Congress (WUC).

The WUC brought judicial review proceedings against the Home Office, HM Revenue and Customs and the National Crime Agency (NCA) claiming an unlawful failure or refusal to investigate cotton goods produced in Xinjiang, an autonomous territory in northwest China, allegedly home to 380 internment camps used to detain Uyghurs and people from other Muslim minorities. It said 85% of Chinese cotton originated in Xinjiang and the “vast majority” was manufactured in facilities under “conditions of detention and forced labour”, implicating UK companies that imported from certain Chinese firms. 

The WUC claimed that such products could constitute criminal property under Part 7 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (POCA) and trading in them could give rise to money laundering offences. lt was also alleged that the NCA misdirected itself in law about the powers of civil recovery of criminal property under Part 5 of POCA.

The Defendants accepted that for the purposes of POCA, the offences of forced labour contrary to section 1 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (MSA) and crimes against humanity contrary to section 51(1) of the International Criminal Court Act 2001 are capable of constituting criminal conduct.

However, the NCA responded by stating that there is a need for specific criminal property to be identified prior to an investigation being launched under POCA. It decided to not launch an investigation because “nothing has been identified which provides a concrete allegation of modern slavery upon which the NCA could commence an investigation”.

Whilst the High Court ruled against the WUC, the judgment noted that the NCA agreed that modern slavery offences, such as forced labour, could amount to criminal conduct under POCA, but emphasised that those offences must be clearly and specifically set out and the resultant criminal property specifically identified.

One of the most striking parts of the judgment relates to the NCA's openness to future investigations: "..the NCA's view remains that there are not currently sufficient grounds to suspect that any identifiable criminal offence has been committed by identifiable individuals...The NCA remains open to the possibility that the intelligence picture may change at any time".

The case shows that POCA legislation may be used to investigate claims of modern slavery in supply chains and provide an additional tool in investigators' armoury. To date, there have been convictions against individuals under the MSA but no corporate prosecutions. 

We shall keep a close watch on whether the NCA does indeed make use of POCA legislation to tackle modern slavery investigations in supply chains.

If we can assist with any of the issues raised within this article, please do get in contact.