A leading academic commentator and researcher on the Post Office scandal has said he expects senior solicitors to be struck off at the end of the inquiry.
Richard Moorhead, professor of law and professional ethics at the University of Exeter and a prolific writer on the Horizon scandal, said it was ‘highly likely’ that people would be removed from the profession. He added that he also expects one or two individuals to face criminal prosecutions.
He was ‘cautiously supportive’ of the Solicitors Regulation Authority's position of waiting until the public inquiry has finished before taking any decisions on disciplinary proceedings, saying the regulator has been doing a lot of investigatory work behind the scenes. But Moorhead said the SRA should provide ‘greater clarity and detail’ about what it is doing currently.
Speaking at a Westminster Legal Policy Forum event on legal ethics today, Moorhead said senior and junior lawyers from the solicitor and barrister professions were ‘at the heart’ of the scandal. Their roles ranged from drafting ‘aggressive’ contracts when the Horizon system was adopted, to leading unjustified prosecutions and civil cases, to advising then-chief executive Paula Vennells when she appeared to give misleading evidence to the business select committee in 2015. There are also questions about the conduct of the civil litigation brought against sub-postmasters – a subject which will be a focus of the inquiry’s next phase.
‘Lawyers will try to say they advised but [no more],’ he said. ‘If you look at the history the lawyers are not just here and there, they are almost everywhere.’
Moorhead said the evidence so far about prosecutions suggested lawyers had been either ‘completely unaware’ or ‘complacent’ about their professional obligations. The inquiry had shown up ‘stark failures that are technical and ethical’. Incompetence, complacency and conduct issues had created a ‘toxic’ mixture.
But he questioned whether the current Post Office legal team had changed their approach following the extra scrutiny that has come through the ITV drama about the scandal. Moorhead pointed out that lawyers have been warned recently by the SRA about their handling of compensation negotiations with victims. Moorhead said he is aware of a journalist being threatened with ‘SLAPP-like tactics’ by a law firm in relation to their reporting of the inquiry.
Moorhead said the legal profession could no longer approach legal ethics as ‘business as usual’ and that this attitude would result in more scandals like Horizon. He cited website testimonials for lawyers who were instructed by the Post Office which boasted of how one individual was a ‘steamroller that crushes anything that gets in his way’. Another KC was said to be able to ‘turn a pile of refuse into something that looks great’.
Moorhead added: ‘Lawyers are being sold as mercenaries or Midases with the brown stuff. Excessive zeal sells.’
He continued: ‘The "come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough" adversarial approach is alive and well.’
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