Law firm Leigh Day cleared of Iraq case professional misconduct allegations

On 9thJune, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) cleared London law firm Leigh Day and three of its solicitors of all 20 allegations of professional misconduct over Iraq war murder compensation claims. The trial, instigated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) after a three-year investigation,lasted seven weeks and is believed to have cost in the region of £10million.

The full judgment and reasoning is expected to be published in August. In summary, after a week of deliberations,the Tribunal found that all 20 allegations against Leigh Day were not proved by the SRA. Although, in respect of 12 charges, this was by a majority decision, with one panel member dissenting.

Following the decision, Martyn Day, co-founder of the law firm Leigh Day issued a statement saying “we are pleased that the tribunal has cleared us of all the charges, and confirmed our view that we did not act improperly or dishonestly in these legal claims against the Ministry of Defence.”

Case background

This case has been the SDT’s longest and most expensive trial. Allegations were heard that the Ministry of Defence(MOD) and the SRA enjoyed an “unhealthy cosy relationship” in the build up to the charges being brought against the law firm.

The case related to compensation claims made on behalf of Iraqi citizens against the MOD’s British troops following the Battle of Danny Boy, near Basra in 2004. Fighting had broken out after members of the Mahdi Army Shia militia ambushed a UK military patrol. It was alleged that some Iraqis were captured and detained at a British base where they were said to be tortured and murdered.

The subsequent al-Sweadypublic inquiry, costing a reported £31m, found the claims to be fictitious. It concluded that the allegations were “wholly without foundation and entirely the product of deliberate lies, reckless speculation and ingrained hostility.” The report did find, however, that 9 Iraqi detainees had been mistreated. It was discovered that the Iraqi claimants were not innocent civilians but fighters in the Mahdi Army. The status of the claimants was confirmed in a personnel list issued by a Shia militia group. The list had been in the possession of Leigh Day since 2007 but the firm initially failed to disclose it to the courts or the al-Sweady inquiry.

The professional misconduct charges against the law firm and its solicitors focused on alleged failure to adequately verify the claims made by its Iraqi clients.

The outcome of the tribunal case is a severe blow to the SRA which launched the costly proceedings and the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon, who had called for the legal prosecution.

The allegations

The allegations against the human rights law firm and its solicitors included personally endorsing claims in a 2008 press conference that the British Army had unlawfully killed Iraqi civilians, late disclosure of a key document, disposal of a translation of that document, improper failure to provide documents to court and regulatory authorities, improper fee-sharing arrangements, making and maintaining improper allegations on behalf of al-Sweady claimants and not acting on the use of the word “bribe” in three emails handled by the firm.

The findings

In brief, the SDT found that:

• Malik’s involvement in the 2008 press conference was minimal. Day’s making and endorsement of the allegations in the press conference was “not improper” in the context at the time.

• There was no duty on the firm to disclose documents, including the personnel list, earlier than 2003 when the al-Sweady Inquiry requested to see all relevant files. Leigh Day had previously acknowledged its failure to disclose the document was a human error but denied any professional wrongdoing.

• Mistakes were undoubtedly made in handling the matter relating to the destruction of the translation of the document but such mistakes were not sufficiently serious to amount to professional misconduct.

• The firm was cleared over misconduct of financial arrangements with Public Interest Lawyers.

• In relation to emails referring to a “bribe” the SRA had not shown the firm or its solicitors knew of any suspected payments to the clients to be improper.

Implications of the case

Counsel representing the defendants, Patricia Robertson QC said that the case had a wider significance for all solicitors and warned that a finding of misconduct might stop others from speaking out in difficult cases.

The option of an appeal is open to the SRA but it is unlikely to be considered until after the written judgment containing the SDT’s rationale and full detail is published in August. The SRA could come under fire over the outcome of the case, given its colossal expense, especially if a costs order is made. Leigh Day has always acknowledged some “human error” but denied this has ever amounted to professional wrongdoing. At a pre-trial hearing, the law firm suggested the SRA had been “leaned on” by the government to pursue the case; an accusation which the SRA has vehemently denied.

A spokesman for the MOD said it was “disappointed” the SDT had not agreed with its concerns and it “will continue to both vigorously defend any opportunistic claims when we believe they are false or exaggerated, and to bring any evidence of wrongdoing to the attention of the supervising bodies.”

The SDT hearing is expected to be the most expensive hearing to date, with details of each party’s costs not yet submitted but likely to be substantial. A decision on costs is expected to be made at the end of the year.

The full implications arising from this case will no doubt be discussed further when the Tribunal issues its full judgment in August.

Jonathan Goodwin has over 20 years’ experience in regulatory and professional disciplinary law relating to solicitors. I am a solicitor advocate and regarded as an expert in this area of law. Please call me on 0151 909 2380 for a confidential no obligation discussion.

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