The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal has cleared human rights firm Leigh Day and three of its solicitors of professional misconduct in the handling of claims relating to allegations of atrocities by British troops in Iraq.
The firm, senior partner Martyn Day, equity partner Sapna Malik and solicitor Anna Crowther had denied 19 charges.
The case has taken seven weeks to come to this point, with members of the tribunal spending the whole of this week considering their decision.
Following the decision, Day said in a statement: 'We are pleased that the tribunal has cleared us of all the charges, and confirmed our view that we did not act improperly or dishonestly in these legal claims against the Ministry of Defence.
'For nearly 40 years I have battled on behalf of the ordinary man and woman in this country and abroad to ensure they get access to justice not least when they face the might of British multinationals or government. I am very pleased that I and my colleagues can now get back to doing the work we love.
"We would like to thank our insurers and our fantastic legal team and counsel for all their hard work over the past couple of years, and during this hearing, and all those within the legal world and beyond who have given us such strong support.'
Allegations against the firm and solicitors included personally endorsing claims in a 2008 press conference, late disclosure of a key document, disposal of a translation of that document, unlawful payments to a third party and not acting on the use of the word ‘bribe’ in three emails handled by the firm.
But none of the allegations of professional misconduct were found to be proven to the required criminal standard of proof.
Malik left the packed hearing in tears having joined her colleagues to hear the decision read out for each allegation.
On the issue of the press conference, the tribunal said Malik's involvement was minimal, while Day's making and endorsement of the allegations was 'not improper' in the context of the time.
The tribunal said there was no duty on Leigh Day to disclose the document any earlier than 2013, when the Al-Sweady Inquiry requested to see all relevant files. Crowther's handling of the hand-written translation was 'undoubtedly a mistake [but] not sufficiently serious to be professional misconduct'.
The tribunal cleared Leigh Day of misconduct over financial arrangements with Public Interest Lawyers director Phil Shiner, and found no subsequent duty to report him to the regulator.
On the issue of emails mentioning the word 'bribe', the tribunal said the SRA had not showed that Day or Malik knew of suspected any payments to clients to be improper.
The issue of costs will be decided at a hearing likely to be at the end of this year. Leigh Day's costs were said to be £7m earlier in this hearing, while the SRA's costs will also run to seven figures. Any adverse costs order against the SRA would leave the profession footing the bill for the prosecution.
The SDT's longest-ever trial heard allegations that the Ministry of Defence and the Solicitors Regulation Authority enjoyed an ‘unhealthily cosy relationship’ in the build-up to charges against the firm.
Representing the defendants, Patricia Robertson QC of Fountain Court Chambers said the case had a wider significance for all solicitors and warned that a finding of misconduct might stop others from speaking up or acting in difficult cases.
Timothy Dutton QC acted for the SRA.
The option of an appeal is still open to the SRA, but that will not be considered until after the written judgment is published in August. A spokesman added: 'We note the judgment handed down today. We need to wait to see the full detail and rationale behind the tribunal's decision. We will then consider the possibility of an appeal.'
A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said that it was 'disappointed' the tribunal had not agreed with the concerns it complained about.
'We will continue to both vigorously defend any opportunistic claims when we believe they are false or exaggerated, and to bring any evidence of wrongdoing to the attention of supervising bodies,' the spokesperson added.
Regulation specialist Iain Miller, of London firm Kingsley Napley, commented: ‘The stakes in this process were high for Leigh Day given the seriousness of the SRA’s allegations so the firm and its respondents must be hugely relieved by today’s outcome. They have had an uncomfortable few weeks in the spotlight but I do not see a lasting impact on their business.
'Whether those in political circles will be satisfied by today’s result is a different story. It will be interesting to see if this strengthens the hand of those calling to hand more disciplinary powers to the SRA.’