Acting in good faith
Traditionally, banks have been required to execute their customers' instructions promptly, and where a bank acts in good faith and a loss occurs, the customer must bear that loss (Bank of England v Vagliano Bros  AC 107).
But a bank must not executing a customer’s order if, and for so long as, the bank has reasonable grounds (though not necessarily proof), for believing that the order is an attempt to defraud the customer (Barclays Bank plc v Quincecare Ltd,  4 All ER 363). If it were to go ahead, the bank may be liable for the customer's loss.
This "Quincecare duty" protects a company from its funds being stolen by management or staff who've been permitted by the company to operate the company's bank accounts in the ordinary course of business.
In this type of case (unlike in some other scenarios) the courts tend not to attribute the employee's fraudulent acts to the company, because that would leave the company unprotected from the fraud (Singularis Holdings Ltd (in official liquidation) v Daiwa Capital Markets Europe Ltd  UKSC 50, where the firm was not actually a deposit-taking bank).
Extending this to fintech firms
More recently, the High Court (in Hamblin v World First Ltd  6 WLUK 314) has made a preliminary ruling which extends all of this law firmly into fintech territory. The court held that:
- an action for breach of statutory duty could be brought under the Payment Services Regulations 2017 where the regulations impose a duty for a limited class of the public and there is a clear parliamentary intention to confer a private right of action for breach on members of that class (certain principles derived from EU law should also be considered at the trial);
- it was arguable that a claim for a breach of the customer's mandate could be estopped (prevented) where the payment service provider acted in in good faith, even if the account holder had no directors (!) and was in fact under the control of fraudsters, but it was also observed that the service provider's internal documents relating to the opening of the account could affect the outcome...;
- it was arguable that the acts of fraudsters who misappropriated funds from the company account should not be attributed to the company, so as to give the company protection from the fraud (Singularis);
- similarly, a person has 'standing' to bring such claims in the form of a 'derivative action' against a payment provider on behalf of the corporate customer (effectively standing in the shoes of the corporate customer) where that person paid funds to the corporate customer in a way that made the company a trustee (due to its knowledge of the payment and the receipt of funds on trust or as a result of a fraudulent scheme) and where the company as trustee has committed a breach of trust, or in other exceptional circumstances such as fraud.
These cases highlight the importance of having good customer on-boarding and account opening processes/records, as well as 'transaction monitoring' processes - both of which are otherwise required by the anti-money laundering regime in any event.
A payment service provider should be in a position to know that a corporate customer has no directors, as well as the nature of its business and the purposes for which customers are asked to make payments to its accounts. The service provider must also be able to recognise activity on its customer's payment accounts that is unusual, in order to determine whether it is an attempt to misappropriate funds, as well as whether it is suspicious from a money laundering or terrorist financing perspective. Triggers for suspicion or being 'on notice' of potential for fraud or misappropriation of funds include where the customer is in financial difficulties; there is a breakdown in relations among directors, or directors and shareholders; or the customer has suffered significant security breaches and so on.
As with suspicious activity from a money laundering perspective, once suspicion or 'notice' is triggered, it must be investigated. Explanations for activity should be sought and should receive appropriate scrutiny (not simply believed and filed); and decisions to proceed or not should be made and documented. Of course this process must be balanced against the need to avoid 'tipping-off' and/or to file a suspicious activity report where appropriate; and the firm should document where those legal and compliance requirements prevents further "Quincecare" related work to resolve whether funds are being misappropriated.
Equally, it is incumbent on corporate account holders to monitor the activity on their own payment accounts, inform the service provider of changes to the nature of their business or solutions to potential 'trigger' problems; and to be ready to respond promptly and clearly to queries from banks and other account providers. Not only should those steps help ensure their funds are not misappropriated, but it should also help avoid a situation where a confused service provider needlessly interrupts the flow of genuine transactions.
If you have concerns in this area, please let me know.