02:17, April 24 123 0 theguardian.com

2017-04-24 02:17:02

 

Lawyers must be able to bring cases against government 'without fear of reprisals'

Lawyers must be able to bring cases against the government “without fear of recrimination or reprisals”, the high-profile solicitors’ firm Leigh Day has declared on the eve of its trial for alleged professional misconduct.

Ahead of an anticipated seven-week hearing at the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT), the company has defended its record against accusations from the Ministry of Defence that it indulged in ambulance-chasing over false Iraqi claims that eventually resulted in an abandoned public inquiry costing £25m.

The charges, which have been brought by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), will be a test case, potentially setting limits on how far solicitors need to prove allegations to their own satisfaction before they can bring them to court.

Leigh Day has pioneered class actions involving multiple claims for human rights abuses and personal injury compensation.The London firm succeeded, for example, in obtaining compensation for survivors of the 1950s Mau Mau uprising in Kenya who were tortured and mistreated by British troops. It has pursued cases against Shell for pollution in Nigeria and against Trafigura for toxic waste in west Africa.

The misconduct case against Leigh Day mainly centres around claims that Iraqi detainees were tortured and murdered following the so-called Battle of Danny Boy near Basra in 2004.

The fighting erupted after members of a Shia militia, the Mahdi army, ambushed a UK military patrol. Some insurgents, it was alleged, were captured and taken back to a British base where they were supposedly tortured and murdered. The claims were subsequently found to be fictitious by the Al-Sweady inquiry in 2014.

Leigh Day has alleged that the defence secretary, Michael Fallon, may have pressured the SRA into prosecuting the law firm. Three of the firms’ solicitors, including its co-founder, Martyn Day, as well as the company itself have been charged. They deny any wrongdoing.

The hearing follows a decision by the SDT earlier this year to disqualify another lawyer, Phil Shiner, for dishonesty and misconduct over the Danny Boy claims.

In a statement released before Monday’s hearing, a spokesperson for Leigh Day said: “We contest all the allegations made against us and will be defending ourselves vigorously at the tribunal hearing which begins on Monday 24 April 2017.

“The allegations against us stem from matters where we acted on behalf of Iraqi citizens who sought compensation from the Ministry of Defence because they alleged that they, or members of their families, were unlawfully detained, injured or killed by British Forces in Iraq.

“... We believe that it is essential for our democracy that lawyers can bring claims before our courts, whether on behalf of service personnel or civilians, against the Ministry of Defence or any other government entity.

“Some of them may succeed (indeed, so far, the Ministry of Defence has settled over 300 of these claims, including where Iraqis died whilst under the custody or control of our army) and some may fail. That does not detract from the principle that lawyers should be able to bring cases before our courts without fear of recrimination or reprisals.”

Iain Miller, partner at Kingsley Napley LLP who specialises in regulatory issues for the legal sector, says: “This is one of the most high-profile cases the SRA has brought in many years, given the unusual degree of government and public interest.

“The stakes are high with reputational damage, a large fine and even revocation of authorisation and partner strike-off being amongst the spectrum of potential outcomes if Leigh Day and its two partners cannot succeed in contesting the allegations.”

Both the SRA and the MoD have denied that improper pressure was brought to bear on the SRA to bring the prosecution.