Human rights firm Leigh Day and its senior solicitors went ahead with an explosive press conference – alleging British soldiers’ took part in torture and killings – for publicity purposes and without sufficient checks on the claims, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal heard today.
On the second day of a seven-week hearing, it was alleged that senior partner Martyn Day entered a ‘joint enterprise’ with Public Interest Lawyers director Phil Shiner to hold the press conference in February 2008. The conference followed weeks of planning and correspondence to clarify exactly what would be said and what the impact was going to be.
Day and Shiner then recklessly endorsed a series of the most serious allegations made by Iraqi civilians without making checks about their veracity or of the people making them, the tribunal heard.
Timothy Dutton QC, representing the Solicitors Regulation Authority, said Day’s emails to Shiner in the build-up showed he was ‘alive’ to the possibility the clients were ‘concocting the story to embarrass the British Army’. But the conference went ahead nonetheless, Dutton argued, telling the tribunal that Day and Shiner went beyond what they could prove in order to ‘ally’ themselves with the clients they represented.
‘The sole interest of Public Interest Lawyers and Leigh Day, attracting maximum publicity and a furore, is an explanation as to why these two solicitors expressed themselves in these terms,’ said Dutton. ‘The risks were obvious. There were serious risks involved – it was known the allegations were extremely serious [and] and the allegation was being put forward that the British Army was involved in the worst massacre for many decades.
‘It was known that their clients might have been lying and might have been members of the [insurgent] Mahdi Army. The risk was that files were being put in the public domain as containing the truth. The risk was that it would cause maximum damage not only to the British Army as an institution, but to British soldiers and their families.’
Dutton cast doubt on the preparatory work leading up to the press conference. He said Leigh Day had taken no evidence from doctors who carried out post-mortem examinations on dead Iraqis; made no checks with Iraqi courts on the background of their clients; and failed to check on the claims with either the armed forces or authors of reports about the Iraq conflict. The tribunal heard yesterday that Leigh Day pursued the claims despite knowing the clients were members of a hostile Iraqi militia.
Dutton pointed out that a BBC Panorama programme which investigated the British Army’s conduct in Iraq opted not to support the most serious allegations against soldiers, instead saying the claims had been endorsed by lawyers representing the civilians.
In terms of checks, the SRA alleged that the solicitors proceeded on the basis of their ‘own interpretation’ of photographs of injuries to Iraqi clients.
Dutton added: ‘[Day and Shiner] are lay people - they are not experts in this field and they didn’t have medical evidence. The only evidence which one might call medical evidence as to the injuries in the photographs was Mr Shiner apparently showing his wife a photograph – she answered that she was no expert.’
Dutton said the SRA’s case did not rely on the successful prosecution of Shiner earlier this year, but as this was a joint press conference the tribunal would have to find either that Shiner’s tribunal decision was wrong, or that there was some ‘factual distinction’ with Day.
As well as Day, Leigh Day partner Sapna Malik was also accused of recklessness in not speaking up to question what was going to be said at the press conference, despite being party to discussions in the build-up. The tribunal heard she was a trusted colleague of Day and could have freely expressed her reservations about the content if she had them, but instead she had appeared to endorse the prepared text.
All respondents deny misconduct. The hearing continues.