The Law Society can destroy 1.5 million files seized from Solicitors Regulation Authority interventions in solicitors’ practices, the High Court has ruled.
Retaining 1.5 million files in 109,600 boxes costs the Society £344,000 a year.
Ruling in The Law Society (Solicitors Regulation Authority)  Iain Purvis QC, sitting as a deputy judge of the Chancery Division, said he was 'more than satisfied' to allow an order for the destruction of non-original documents that the Solicitors Regulation Authority had held for at least seven years.
Purvis said it was ‘inherently unlikely’ that any significant damage would be caused by the destruction of non-original documents of this age. He noted that no complaints had been received in relation to 890,000 files the Society destroyed before 2001.
Since 2001, no documents of any kind sent for archiving by the SRA’s Intervention Archives Department have been destroyed because of concerns relating to the treatment of practice money held under statutory trust.
The judgment states that by 2008, the Society had completed most of its work on the historic statutory trust position, but did not recommence its document destruction policy due to ‘creeping doubts’ about the legality of doing so without the mandate of the court.
Any responsible firm of solicitors, Purvis said, would have its own document destruction policy under which aged non-original documents in its possession would be destroyed after a given period of time.
‘It is hard to identify any public policy reason why non-original documents obtained by the SRA from an irresponsible firm should remain in existence when they would have been destroyed if they had been in the hands of a responsible firm,’ he added.
The order would enable an ‘immediate destruction of the backlog of documents that has built up over the years and permit a rolling destruction of documents as and when their destruction fell due under the policy for the next seven years’.
Purvis envisaged that another application could be made in seven years’ time (and so on) ’to enable the destruction to continue smoothly into the future’. Alternatively an application could be made earlier if the SRA wished to update or alter the policy.
Purvis was, however, unwilling to make a formal declaration on whether the Society had the power under the Solicitors Act 1974 to destroy documents without an order of the court, as ‘this has been an application with no opponent’.
Purvis made no criticism of the way the application was made. He said he admired the fairness with which Timothy Dutton QC and James McClelland, instructed by London firm Russell-Cooke for the Law Society, had identified what they perceived to be the potential arguments against them.
‘However it is fair to say that I have not heard from any party arguing against the application, and that adds to my concern about making a declaration in such general form.’
The proceedings were brought by the Society, which administers and funds the SRA, the independent body responsible for regulating solicitors in England and Wales.
The Law Society's statutory powers to intervene in solicitors’ practices are delegated to the SRA board pursuant to section 79 of the Solicitors Act 1974 and Law Society General Regulations.