A solicitor acting for publisher News International has been cleared of wrongdoing over the surveillance of lawyers pursuing phone-hacking cases against the News of the World newspaper.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal heard that Julian Charles Pike, a partner at London firm Farrer and Co, had suggested carrying out surveillance of two lawyers acting in the case against News International, which published the News of the World until its closure in 2011.
Pike also instructed a private investigator to look into whether the two lawyers were in a relationship, amid concerns they were sharing information about cases without their clients’ consent.
Following a three-day hearing, the SDT found that the Solicitors Regulation Authority had not proved that Pike acted without justification or without placing limitations on the scope of any investigations.
The tribunal found it was clear Pike had intended that the investigation be undertaken lawfully and he had placed sufficient limits on the nature and scope. But the tribunal ordered Pike to pay £20,000 in costs after finding the case was properly brought by the SRA.
According to the partially redacted judgment, Pike, a solicitor for 25 years, had acted for the company in the defence of civil proceedings going back to 2007. During the subsequent three years, he had taken steps to establish whether one particular solicitor, identified by initials in the judgment, could act in claims against the publisher.
In March 2010 he emailed an in-house lawyer at News International to say he found the claimant solicitor and another barrister working on the claims to be ‘deeply untrustworthy’.
Surveillance was undertaken by News of the World the following month of the solicitor’s ex-wife and his daughter.
In May 2010 Pike issued instructions to a private investigator to identify if the solicitor and barrister lived together and if he (the solicitor) was the father of her child. Pike told the tribunal there was ‘ample justification’ for the surveillance due to what he alleged was the ‘backdrop of a litany of misconduct’ by the claimant solicitor.
He insisted that evidence appeared to show confidential information was being shared between the solicitor and barrister, and it was only at that point the nature of their relationship became relevant. Pike himself had not arranged the surveillance, which included covert video recording, and did not know what form it would take.
Pike stated that the private investigator was trustworthy and did not go beyond his instructions. He rejected the idea that he should have taken his concerns directly to the two lawyers, saying that option had not worked in the past.
Apart from establishing that surveillance was justified, Pike denied any responsibility for what in fact occurred and said it was ‘unfair’ to expect him to set all the parameters. He did not accept, even with the benefit of hindsight, that he should have spelt out exactly how the surveillance was to be done.
In its submissions, the SRA said Pike was unjustified in approving surveillance. The regulator pointed to comments from Sir Brian Leveson, following his inquiry into the press, that keeping tabs on opposition solicitors was ‘dubious at best’ and reflected poorly on all involved.
But the tribunal accepted Pike held a ‘genuine belief’ that the claimant solicitor and barrister were guilty of misconduct and that it was damaging to his client.
His evidence was found to be ‘open, frank and credible’ and neither of two allegations of breaches of the code of conduct was proven.
It was revealed after the ruling that the SRA had incurred more than £100,000 in costs investigating the case; Pike was ordered to make a 'modest contribution' of £20,000.
Pike told the tribunal that the idea he should pay any of those costs based on Leveson’s comments was ‘risible’.
But the tribunal found it 'repugnant' that solicitors would carry out surveillance on other lawyers. Such surveillance should take place only in 'the most unusual of circumstances and the tribunal should send a message that, in those circumstances, solicitors had to insist on parameters'.