The Ministry of Defence and the Solicitors Regulation Authority enjoyed an ‘unhealthily cosy relationship’ in the build-up to charges being brought in relation to claims over alleged atrocities in Iraq, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal heard today.
Day nine of the hearing into allegations of misconduct by London firm Leigh Day heard from an MoD official that 276 pieces of correspondence were exchanged between the ministry and the regulator concerning proceedings involving Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) and Leigh Day over their handling of claims against the British Army.
Ministers urged civil servants to write several times in 2015 asking for updates on the prosecutions of each firm. On one occasion, the tribunal heard, an email was sent asking for information as ministers were due to discuss progress of the investigation at high-level meetings the following day.
Senior officials at the SRA responded several times to the MoD. On one occasion chief executive Paul Philip wrote directly to defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon.
Several of these messages described how the SRA was unhappy with elements of legal services regulation and disciplinary processes, including its operational independence from the Law Society, the presence of a former Society president as chair of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, and the majority-solicitor make-up of the tribunal panels.
Dr Ben Sanders, assistant head of responsibilities for public law and historic investigations at the MoD, responded to one SRA email by saying ‘I am sure ministers here will wish to be supportive,’ the tribunal heard.
In cross-examination, Patricia Robertson QC, representing Leigh Day, said SRA officials expressed ‘very significant concerns about the operation of the tribunal’ in correspondence with government.
She asked Sanders: ‘Taking all that material as a whole what we find here is the SRA using disciplinary proceedings as a platform for lobbying the government for regulatory reforms and enlisting the MoD.’ Saunders admitted this was the impression from the correspondence.
Robertson said the SRA had spent ten months investigating the claims following the Al-Sweady Inquiry and had first put allegations to Leigh Day and three of its solicitors in August 2015.
In December 2015, in response to Sanders, Paul Philip said the solicitors had asked for a deadline of February 2016 for responding in full, a timescale the SRA chief executive wrote was ‘unacceptable’.
Robertson added: ‘The SRA had had ten months to consider what it described as these interlinked issues.'
‘The SRA in [Philip’s] letter is taking the line it is unreasonable for my clients to have half that time on the same material. Does that not strike you as unreasonable?'
’I suggest there is a palpable level of pressure cumulatively generated by you and other ministers in relation to the timescale of the investigation.’
She continued: ‘The inference to draw is that the SRA wants to satisfy the interests of you [Sanders] and ministers to get a decision [to charge Leigh Day] by the end of the calendar year.’
Sanders replied: ‘I don’t believe I was putting any pressure on anybody – I was requesting informally an update as to when the investigation might be complete.’
Robertson also flagged up an email sent by Sanders to the SRA following the prosecution of PIL director Phil Shiner, in which he asked for evidence of monies paid to a third party for claim and suggested it could be sent to lawyers rather than himself. This, Robertson suggested, was a way for the MoD to find a ‘back door’ to get round legal privilege rules about disclosure. Saunders denied this was the case.
Leigh Day and solicitors Martyn Day, Sapna Malik and Anna Crowther deny wrongdoing. The tribunal continues.