More than 20 live investigations are under way into solicitors and law firms linked to the Post Office scandal, the Solicitors Regulation Authority revealed today. 

The regulator is probing those who worked on behalf of the Post Office or Royal Mail Group at the time when hundreds of sub-postmasters were wrongly accused of theft because of data from the faulty Horizon IT system.

In an update published today, the SRA said it was investigating solicitors’ management and supervision of cases and the strategy and conduct of prosecutions and subsequent litigation. This includes the handling of the group litigation which became Bates v The Post Office.

The SRA investigation also includes whether solicitors breached their duties relating to expert witnesses, whether they breached disclosure obligations and whether they improperly applied legal privilege to protect communications from disclosure. Issues relating to the mediation scheme are being examined, including the potential overcharging of claimants, use of non-disclosure agreement and labelling of correspondence.

The update is the clearest indication yet of the scope and range of the SRA investigation, making clear that solicitors and firms are being looked at who were involved both in prosecuting sub-postmasters and in the Post Office’s response to the emerging scandal.

There is another strand too: the SRA says it is looking at the conduct of solicitors in relation to their ‘engagement and cooperation’ with the ongoing Post Office Inquiry. This is believed to include the former general counsel Jane MacLeod, who has returned to her native Australia and has refused to appear in person or through video link to give oral evidence.

The SRA has come under pressure to take action following revelations from the inquiry. This update will seek to reassure the public that investigations are happening, even if no action has yet been taken against any solicitor or firm.

A team of investigators has been assigned to the Post Office matter and scrutinised tens of thousands of pages of information and evidence, the update states. Court orders have been made requiring the Post Office and Royal Mail Group to provide relevant documents which may not have been shared publicly through the inquiry.

The regulator still expects to be in the best position to take any meaningful action after the full facts and all the relevant issues have been aired through the inquiry.

This position is being kept under constant review but at the moment there is no evidence to show that any solicitor presents an ongoing risk to the public that needs to be addressed through urgent action.

‘Although the range of issues we are investigating is complex, the fundamentals are simple,’ said chief executive Paul Philip. ‘The public expect solicitors to behave ethically. They must act independently and do the right thing in the interests of justice.

‘We will take action where we find they have failed to do so. This is vital to protect the public, maintain trust in the profession, and send a clear message that any solicitor behaving unethically should expect serious consequences,' Philip said. 'We will act as swiftly as we can, but it is important that we get this right. We owe that to everyone impacted in this case and the wider public.’

Aside from one postponed hearing involving current general counsel Ben Foat, the inquiry is not expected to hear from more lawyers in the current phase. Since April, 13 different lawyers involved at various stages in the Horizon IT issue have appeared to give oral evidence. The current phase will conclude at the end of July, with the inquiry returning in September to examine practice and procedure and recommendations for the future.