10:19, April 24 380 0 theguardian.com

2017-04-24 10:19:03
Lawyers in cases against UK troops 'knew clients belonged to Iraqi militia'

The law firm Leigh Day failed for more than five years to reveal that its Iraqi clients pursuing claims against British soldiers were members of a “murderous” Shia militia, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal has been told.

Opening prosecution of the firm, Timothy Dutton QC, for the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), said that for many years lawyers from Leigh Day maintained that those who had been killed or mistreated were “innocent Iraqi civilians”.

The law firm, it is alleged, possessed evidence which demonstrated that many of its clients were members of the Mahdi army and were pursuing “dishonest claims for improper purposes”.

“At no stage did Martyn Day or Sapna Malik [of Leigh Day] stand back and carry out inquiries to check whether they were carrying out improper claims on behalf of the Mahdi army,” Dutton said.

“If [Leigh Day] had discharged their duties, British soldiers and their families would not have had to endure the torment of years of worry.”

As early as 2008, the tribunal was told, Leigh Day knew that one of its clients was a senior member of the Mahdi army and that he had threatened the firm’s agent in Iraq, Abu Jamal.

“Leigh Day knew that if they could pursue the claims to a successful conclusion, then they would receive large costs and they could recoup their expenditure on foreign trips,” Dutton said.

The firm “ignored the evidence they were receiving about [the senior Mahdi army client] because they regarded him as central to bringing of the claims”.

Leigh Day and three of its solicitors face 20 combined charges, including one of dishonesty. The firm’s partners, Martyn Day and Sapna Malik, face multiple charges; another solicitor, Anna Crowther, faces just one charge.

The misconduct allegations mainly centre on claims that British soldiers tortured and murdered Iraqi detainees following the so-called Battle of Danny Boy near Basra in 2004.

The fighting had erupted after members of the Mahdi army Shia militia 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.

The first charge relates to a press conference held by Martyn Day at the Law Society in 2008 at which allegations were first made in public that soldiers had killed, tortured and mistreated Iraqi detainees. The prosecution says that at that point “it was improper” for the lawyers to make those claims.

The trial may break new legal ground, potentially setting limits on how far solicitors need to prove allegations to their own satisfaction before they can bring them to court.

One of the main points of contention is over the release of an Iraqi document known as the OMS detainee list, which recorded that those captured were acknowledged to be Mahdi army fighters and not local farmers or civilians. It was written in Arabic and subsequently translated on behalf of Leigh Day. OMS stands for the “Office of the martyr al-Sadr”, who was a Shia leader.

The SRA, which is prosecuting, maintains that the law firm failed between 2007 and 2013 to hand over the OMS list to the inquiry and the high court. Leigh Day has questioned whether the Ministry of Defence (MoD) itself already had the list.

The charges also involve what are said to be “improper fee-sharing arrangements” between Leigh Day and an Iraqi intermediary, Mazin Yunus, who helped organise Iraqi witnesses. Day and Malik are charged with authorising £75,000 in referral fees to Yunus which were said to be banned by solicitors’ regulations.

Timothy Dutton QC, for the SRA, said that Leigh Day had demonstrated a “hint of tunnel vision” in repeatedly trying to blame the MoD for encouraging the SRA to bring the prosecution.

“This is reaching for a theory to deflect attention from conduct,” Dutton added. The law firm had not recognised the “sheer scale of public disquiet at what had happened”.

Leigh Day’s failure to keep proper records was “disastrous”, he said. Documents that came in were not shared with Phil Shiner of Public Interest Law (PIL) with whom the Iraqi cases were being coordinated. “Leigh Day did not properly record the provenance of the documents they received,” Dutton said. “They did not keep in hard copy form documents which had been held electronically. PIL did not receive the OMS list until 2013.”

Leigh Day received a total of £9.5m in fees from all the Iraqi claims they brought, the tribunal was told.

Emails in Leigh Day’s own internal correspondence referred to the paying of “bribes” although the firm disputes that the word was meant in the sense of corrupting evidence.

Dutton told the tribunal: “[Leigh Day] should not have continued to act for the clients when they had evidence that not only were their clients members of a militia associated with the Mahdi army and pursuing dishonest claims for improper purposes, but which indicated that the clients and agent were being manipulated, threatened and blackmailed by a client, Khudur al-Sweady (KAS). There was evidence that KAS was a senior member of the Mahdi army.

“Some of the money [spent on expenses by Leigh Day], approximately US$10,000, was used to pay what [Sapna Malik and Anna Crowther] in two emails described as ‘bribes’. They now deny that they thought they were paying bribes and they say that the use of the word ‘bribes’ in emails on their files was an unfortunate misdescription.

“Denial of what the contemporaneous documents say is symptomatic: [Leigh Day] seek to rewrite parts of the history, and to deny or obfuscate what was recorded in contemporaneous documents. At an apparent cost of over £7m they have produced extremely lengthy and carefully crafted witness statements which seek to give explanations which in key areas do not square with the contemporaneous evidence.”

Leigh Day and its three solicitors all deny any wrongdoing.

The hearing continues.