UBS Turns to Human Rights Court to Challenge French Case

  • Swiss bank challenging French court rule on $1.2 billion bond
  • UBS under investigation in France over clients tax evasion

UBS Group AG, fighting a French tax evasion investigation, has turned to a court that is more often a refuge for people wrongfully incarcerated or denied religious freedom.

The European Human Rights Court has agreed to consider UBS’s petition challenging the $1.24 billion bail that French authorities ordered the Swiss lender to pay, the bank said in its annual report Friday.

The court confirmed it received an application from UBS in June and will examine it in due time. “No decision has been taken as to its admissibility so far,” it said in a e-mailed statement.

French prosecutors last month concluded a 19-month formal investigation into whether UBS helped clients hide funds from the country’s tax authorities from 2004 to 2012. Judges now are in the process of determining whether the case goes to trial. 

‘Highly Politicized’

Talks for a settlement broke down in July 2014 because the lender balked at pleading guilty, people with knowledge of the events said at the time. France ordered the bank to post a bond of 1.1 billion euros. UBS disputed the legal basis for the bail and the method of calculation and denounced the investigation as “highly politicized.”

After a lower French court rejected its appeal in September 2014, the bank paid the bail and turned to France’s highest court. The Cour de Cassation upheld the bond in December 2014. UBS is contesting “various aspects” of this ruling, it said in its report.

The European court usually deals with more individual cases about extradition, wrongful incarceration and religious freedom. The tribunal rules on claims that signatories to the 1950 human-rights convention have failed to uphold the treaty.

U.S. Pensions

French President Francois Hollande stepped up efforts to punish tax evasion after his former budget minister, Jerome Cahuzac, was forced to resign over his secret Swiss account. The government has targeted wealthy individuals who stashed assets over the border in Switzerland and Luxembourg and advised the banks they used to encourage clients to declare their untaxed assets.

The French case could have repercussions for UBS’s business beyond France. A U.S. rule prohibits banks convicted of certain crimes from managing pension funds unless they obtain a waiver from the Labor Department. These have become more difficult to obtain. The department, which oversees about $8 trillion in private-sector pensions, has faced unprecedented criticism over its granting of waivers to institutions found guilty of crimes.

After its conviction for helping Americans evade taxes in May 2014, Credit Suisse Group AG had to wait a year and a half before receiving a waiver. The bank oversees billions of dollars of assets for more than 100 U.S. pension plans, according to a 2015 court filing.

Belgium Probe

France is one of several countries where UBS has faced investigations in recent years over client tax evasion. In the latest probe, a judge in Belgium last month began an inquiry into whether UBS engaged in fraud, money laundering and other crimes to help wealthy individuals avoid taxes. UBS has denied wrongdoing.

In 2009, UBS paid $780 million to avoid prosecution in the U.S. for helping Americans hide money in Swiss bank accounts. It paid about 300 million euros in 2014 to settle a similar probe in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

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