General counsel and a City firm have come under repeated criticism in a damning report into governance issues at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.
An independent report by Alison Levitt QC found that the outcome of an internal governance review conducted in 2019 had already been decided before it was commissioned. Levitt concluded that the RICS general counsel, who was unnamed, had wrongly outsourced the review to Fieldfisher LLP, where she used to work, and that the firm took a ‘partisan approach’ against four non-executive members of the RICS board without any objective analysis.
Levitt continued: ‘Fieldfisher had more than one potential conflict of interest which they appear either to have ignored or misjudged. I have concluded that their advice of 18 November 2019 fell short of what RICS was entitled to expect in that it was not balanced and was not in the interests of their client.’
The QC said she was denied access to some documents in the file on the ground they were internal communications: she suggested that RICS might consider making a request of the firm to show what discussions took place.
Advice provided about the part played by Fieldfisher in the internal governance review was ‘less than transparent’, the report concluded, and Levitt’s impression was that the firm formed an alliance with the executive and general counsel against the four non-executives.
Levitt added: ‘I am sure that Fieldfisher and other lawyers have given RICS much sound advice over the years in relation to what I would describe as legitimate legal matters, but the lawyers were seriously over-used here. What was needed was not legal advice but judgement, common sense and the courage to stand up to the executive as appropriate.’
The review stated that another firm of solicitors, Sheridans LLP, was engaged by Fieldfisher to threaten defamation proceedings against non-executive members. Fieldfisher drafted the letter and Sheridans was found to have had a ‘limited amount of input’. Levitt said there was literally no prospect of all the respondents being able to obtain legal advice within the time frame they had been given to respond, adding: ‘It is my view that this went further than a serious error of judgement and looked very much like bullying.’
In a statement following the report’s publication, Fieldfisher said: 'We are aware of Alison Levitt QC’s findings. We fully respect that she has provided her views based on her own judgement.
'We are disappointed to note that some of the actions of the firm and the partners who were involved in seeking to help RICS, in what was an exceptionally difficult time for the organisation, have been criticised. Fieldfisher is committed to upholding the highest professional standards and believe that our partners did so in the overall context of the events reviewed by Alison Levitt QC. We will now carefully review the report and reflect on the recommendations advanced.’