Regulatory overlords have declined to disclose details of several meetings held privately over the prosecution of London human rights firm Leigh Day.
In a response to a freedom of information request, seen by the Gazette, the Legal Services Board confirmed it met with the Solicitors Regulation Authority six times between March 2016 and November 2018.
The last of those meetings followed the High Court’s decision to reject the SRA’s appeal against the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal’s findings regarding alleged misconduct by the firm and three of its solicitors. The tribunal cleared the respondents following a seven-week hearing in 2016, and the appeal found no basis for changing that decision. Solicitors will pay the seven-figure costs of the failed prosecution.
In its response to the FOI request, the LSB confirmed it holds notes of its private meetings with the SRA, but this information is being withheld as disclosure could ‘inhibit the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation’ and may prejudice the conduct of public affairs. The decision to withhold disclosure was taken by LSB chief executive Neil Buckley.
The LSB concedes there is a public interest in transparency and accountability in this case, particularly given the level of public interest and the costs involved.
But its response adds: ‘These meetings provide an informal forum and safe space for the free and frank exchange of views and opinion at the most senior levels within the respective organisations.
‘They provide a valuable opportunity for the LSB to gain insight into operations and functions of the SRA, of which it has statutory oversight, and provides both parties with an informal forum in which to raise issues in candour. These meetings are essential to inform the LSB’s consideration and discharge of its statutory role as the oversight regulator of the SRA.’
The response also confirms the Leigh Day case was brought up in a meeting of the SDT user group committee held in March 2018, attended by a representative each from the LSB and SRA.
Again, minutes from this meeting are held by the LSB but will not be made public, the super-regulator saying disclosure would have a ‘chilling effect’ on the free and frank exchange of views.
Last month, the LSB stated that the SRA should be more transparent about how it communicates decisions made by its board or executive.
The SRA has spent more than £4m on the Leigh Day case overall, including £995,000 to cover the firm’s costs of the appeal.
The SRA has released redacted correspondence with government departments revealing that regular updates were given to the MoD about the progress of the Leigh Day investigation.