The highest court in Europe has ruled that proceeds of crime legislation, used to confiscate illegally obtained assets, is lawful.
The case is seen as a major test for the legislation, which has become a powerful weapon for law enforcement agencies across Europe in the war against organised crime and terrorism.
Each EU member state is now using the legal tool, which was first introduced in Ireland with the setting up of the inter-agency Criminal Assets Bureau and has since been adopted by more than two dozen other countries.
The measure was brought in here after the brutal murder of Sunday Independent investigative journalist Veronica Guerin in 1996 and the passing of the hugely successful Proceeds of Crime Act.
If the EU Court of Justice had ruled against the legislation, it would have effectively scuppered the seizure of criminal assets, which has played a key role in the fight against the organised gangs over more than two decades.
The question mark over the legality of the measure was referred to the EU court in Luxembourg by Bulgaria, which asked if EU law precluded member states from providing for civil proceedings for confiscation, which were unrelated to a finding of a criminal offence.
It arose from a case in the Sofia City Court in which a Bulgarian banker is the subject of criminal proceedings for allegedly having incited others, between December 2011 and June 2014, to misappropriate funds belonging to the bank, amounting to about €105m.
A final judgment in that case has not yet been given.
Independently of those proceedings, the Bulgarian commission for the combating of corruption and the confiscation of assets found that the banker and members of his family had "acquired assets of a considerable value whose origin could not be established".
The commission brought civil proceedings before the Sofia City Court with a view to confiscating those assets.
The Sofia court, in essence, asked the EU Court of Justice whether it was legal in a civil action to seize assets if there had been no finding of a criminal offence being committed or a person convicted of such an offence.
In its judgment, the EU Court held that the proceedings before the Sofia court were civil and co-existed in national law with the confiscation regime under criminal law. The civil proceedings concerned assets alleged to have been illegally obtained and were conducted independently of any criminal proceedings brought against the person accused of committing offences and of any conviction of that person.
The court concluded that EU law did not preclude national legislation, which provided that a court "may order the confiscation of illegally obtained assets following proceedings, which are not subject to a finding of a criminal offence or the conviction of the person accused of committing such an offence".
In Dublin, the Criminal Assets Bureau last night welcomed the judgment and said it reinforced the use in many countries of legislation such as the Proceeds of Crime Act.
The bureau's most recent annual report, published last year, showed that CAB returned €5.6m to the State in 2019, including €323,000 from social welfare overpayments, while it also recovered €2.2m seized as the proceeds of crime and just over €3m in taxes.
CAB has targeted a number of high-profile Irish criminals since 1996 including Gerry 'The Monk' Hutch, Kinahan cartel member Liam Byrne and convicted drug trafficker John Gilligan. Last December Gilligan's final property was sold on behalf of the Criminal Assets Bureau.
The three-bedroom house at Willsbrook in Lucan, Co Dublin, was sold for €380,000 after the CAB received approval from the High Court to go ahead.