Lawyers around the world face persecution for doing their job - investigating human rights abuses, fighting impunity and pursuing remedies for clients who often have been injured or abused by agents of the state.
Persecution takes many forms, from vilification by official media of lawyers acting in unpopular causes for unpopular clients, to spurious prosecutions for alleged terrorist offences, sometimes leading to long prison sentences and even in some cases death.
Pressure on bar associations to disbar lawyers who are a ’nuisance’ to the state happens in many places. Azerbaijan being a key example.
This kind of persecution is not something we expect to see happening in the UK.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has spent millions of pounds – from the pockets of the profession - to pursue a case that effectively advanced a government policy agenda to close down lines of accountability for alleged human rights abuses committed by its troops overseas.
The latest revelations about communication between the SRA and the ministries of defence and justice in relation to the prosecution of Leigh Day solicitors are deeply disturbing. Leigh Day faced disciplinary proceedings after pursuing unpopular cases against service personnel who allegedly abused civilians in Iraq. They were exonerated by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal and the SRA lost its appeal in relation to their acquittal in October.
Did the Ministry of Defence exert undue influence on the SRA to pursue a prosecution at all costs? Did the SRA in return seek support for its own agenda - for complete independence from the professional body for solicitors, and for the burden of proof in disciplinary proceedings against solicitors to be lowered?
These regulatory issues, which have no bearing on the Leigh Day case, appear in correspondence between the regulator and the Ministry of Defence, raising some very serious questions about whether the SRA, in pursuit of its own agenda, has been lobbying government departments that have nothing to do with regulation of the profession.
We rail against state interference that threatens the independence of legal professions in other countries. It is time that we did the same in our own back yard. There should be a full and independent investigation of the behaviour of the SRA and its officers prior to and during the course of the Leigh Day prosecution, with full transparency in relation to the communications which took place with all government departments, MPs and state institutions. It is time for the regulator itself to be held to account.
Tony Fisher is a solicitor. The views and comments expressed are those of the author alone.