The government risks regulatory overlap and increased red tape if it presses ahead with plans for a statutory register of lobbyists, City lawyers have warned.
The City of London Law Society (CLLS) said proposals for the register would create contradictory regulatory regimes and expose lawyers to breaches of client confidentiality.
The CLLS regulation committee responded to a consultation started by the House of Commons committee on standards in public life. The government announced plans in July to force firms lobbying ministers and civil servants to declare who they represented.
The CLLS committee, chaired by Clifford Chance general counsel Chris Perrin, said solicitors are already regulated and bound by a strict code of conduct.
Its response said there was no compelling evidence to suggest lobbying abuse was widespread – and until such evidence is produced, there is no case for new regulation.
‘Were it to be demonstrated that solicitors were involved in inappropriate lobbying behaviour, we would advocate addressing the issue by means of the Solicitors Regulation Authority rather than by creating overlapping and potentially contradictory regulation,’ the response said.
‘We are concerned that broad-brush regulatory initiatives, which, at least in relation to the legal profession, do not seem to be justified by reference to identified problems, have the potential to create confusion and uncertainty as well as costly red tape.’
The CLLS committee said lawyers play a vital role in testing the practicality of legislation and would feel inhibited from engaging with policymakers if proposed laws are passed.
If lawyers cannot safeguard the identity of clients who do not wish to be identified, the response argued, they will be unable to speak with ministers without potentially breaching regulations over client confidentiality.
‘In practice, when a lawyer contacts a government representative or elected official on a matter that involves more than simply receiving general information, the client’s identity may well be given.
‘When such contacts are made in relation to sensitive matters, the relevant degree of disclosure is likely to be approved by the client on the understanding of confidentiality. If that commitment cannot be made by the party being lobbied, helpful communications may be stifled.’
The committee said if a statutory register of lobbyists were to be set up, there should be a rule so that only those who are meaningfully engaged (devoting more than 20% of their time) in lobbying should be required to register. This is how the system operates in the United States and similar rules apply in Canada.