Legal

Australia’s white collar crime penalties pale in comparison to other jurisdictions

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People who commit white collar crime in Australia are getting off lightly compared with those found guilty of similar offenses in other countries, a report has found.

Thousands of Australians have lost millions of dollars or been put at risk by the actions of financial planners and credit brokers who have committed fraud, provided inappropriate advice and operated without an appropriate license.

A report by the Australia Securities and Investments Commission has found the penalties that can be imposed for such offenses in Australia are limited in some cases compared with those available to regulators in other jurisdictions.

For example, people who provide financial services without a license in Australia can only be fined up to $34,000. In contrast, the report found that people guilty of the same offenses in the US face maximum fines of $5.6 million. In the UK, the maximum fine is unlimited.

The maximum civil penalty in Australia for giving inappropriate advice is $200,000, while in the UK the maximum is unlimited, and in Hong Kong it is the greater of $1.4 million or three times the benefit gained by the wrongdoer. 

Individuals who broke corporate rules in the US could be sentenced to prison terms of up to 20 years. In Australia, and most other jurisdictions studied, the maximum prison term was 10 years for criminal penalties such as fraud and insider trading. The maximum prison term for providing financial services without a license in Australia is just two years.

The report compared maximum penalties in Australia to penalties imposed for similar offenses in Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canadian province, Ontario.

It found that regulators elsewhere could, in addition to imposing fines and prison terms, remove financial benefits that wrongdoers had obtained through illegal profits or avoided losses. ASIC does not have that power, although it can ask other agencies to bring an action to confiscate the proceeds of crime.

The relatively low fixed fines that ASIC can impose and the fact that it cannot remove the proceeds of crime itself meant that wrongdoers may still profit from their conduct and not be deterred by the penalties, the report warned.

“The maximum fine that may be imposed may be substantially lower than the financial benefit obtained as a result of the wrongdoing,” it said.

The report also found inconsistencies between penalties that could apply to similar offenses under different pieces of legislation within Australia. For instance, offering a financial service without a license attracted a criminal penalty under the Corporations Act with individuals fined up to $34,000, while someone giving unlicensed credit advice could be subject to the same criminal penalty, or a civil penalty of up to $340,000.

Civil penalties in the Corporations Act have been eroded by inflation as they have not increased since they were set in 1992 for individuals and 2004 for corporations. In 2007, it was suggested that the penalties should be lifted following a Treasury review, although no increases were made.

The report is the first of its kind in over a decade and ASIC has recommended further work be done.

Its findings will be fed into ASIC’s submission to the Financial System Inquiry, which closes for comment on Friday, March 28.

This article first appeared on Property Observer.

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