A human rights firm fighting allegations of misconduct over Iraq war claims today suggested that the Solicitors Regulation Authority may have been pressured by the government to bring the case. The firm also suggested that the government used a threat of regulatory reform to force the SRA to speed up its investigation and broaden its scope.
Appearing before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal at a case management hearing today, London firm Leigh Day raised the ‘possibility of influence’ from a Ministry of Defence determined to shut down claims against it.
Leigh Day and three of its solicitors deny a range of charges relating to claims brought on behalf of Iraqis against the UK government. These include unlawful payments for referrals and withholding disclosure of lists of detainees. The tribunal heard the firm has spent £3.9m already in defending the case.
For the firm, Patricia Robertson QC of Fountain Court Chambers, said her client was entitled to see correspondence between the MoD and the SRA which might have had a bearing on the bringing of the case.
Timothy Dutton QC, for the SRA, said there was not a ‘shred’ of evidence that the regulator had been unduly influenced and it had provided all the documents required ahead of a substantive hearing in April.
The tribunal retired this afternoon to decide what should be disclosed.
Robertson said there had been a ‘change of pace’ in the prosecution that coincided with public statements from defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon in which he spoke out against what he called ‘ambulance-chasing law firms’.
She said the Al-Sweady inquiry, in which claims brought by Leigh Day had been found to have no merit, had criticised the conduct of the MoD and not the law firm.
Robertson said from this point the MoD had a ‘distinct agenda to pass the buck for a very costly public inquiry’ and took an interest in firms which had brought proceedings against it.
The SRA, she suggested, had ‘effectively adopted the MoD line’ in its prosecution and it was fair to disclose documents which might cause the tribunal to look at allegations with scepticism.
‘There is legitimate concern that points have been pursued of who my clients are – a prominent activist known for pursuing very many cases costing the MoD a significant amount of money,’ said Robertson. ‘If there is nothing in it why on earth are we not being shown the correspondence? That is the obvious way to address the need for transparency against the backdrop of concerns.’
Robertson said the ‘genesis’ of the SRA investigation was April 2014, which was when the MoD was ‘very loudly’ criticising Leigh Day.
She suggested this was also a time when the media was calling for disciplinary action against the lawyers involved in the Al-Sweady inquiry and had to be ‘seen to be taking action’. This was also a time when the prospect of ‘streamlining’ the SRA and its functions was floated, and this was also an element which should be examined, Robertson said.
She added: ‘Is it possible the government has been saying to the SRA "you are incredibly inefficient, I can’t believe it has taken you this long and frankly if you can’t deal with it we will come and reform you"?’
Dutton responded that there was nothing in Leigh Day’s argument to show impropriety and to justify further disclosure of the 8,000 documents already released. He described the claims made by Leigh Day as 'fanciful'.
He added: ‘There is no issue that this case has been improperly brought because it has been so lacking in merit. There is no pleaded case there was prosecutorial misconduct which is a limb Leigh Day tries to go down. It is tempting when someone alleges a lack of probity to say "if there is nothing to hide then show us" – that is an advocacy trick which has absolutely no merit.’
The tribunal ruled late this afternoon that the SRA must disclose all relevant correspondence with the MoD, MoJ, Iraq Historical Allegations Team and House of Commons defence sub committee.
In a separate development, defence secretary Michael Fallon said this afternoon that the unit investigating claims of abuse by British forces in Iraq will close down following the striking off of campaigning lawyer Phil Shiner.
The Iraq Historic Allegations Team will close as early as this summer, Fallon said. Remaining investigations will be conducted by the Royal Navy police.