Defence officials imposed a “palpable level of cumulative pressure” on prosecutors to ensure a law firm would be charged with wrongly alleging that British soldiers tortured and murdered Iraqis, a tribunal was told on Friday.
Lawyers for Leigh Day accused senior officials at the Ministry of Defence and the Solicitors Regulation Authority of having an inappropriately “cosy relationship”. In evidence during the second week of a Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal in London, the lawyers said senior figures at the MoD and SRA had adopted the position of “being on the same side”.
Correspondence between Sir Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, and Paul Philip, the chief executive of the SRA, allegedly demonstrated that the solicitors’ body was attempting to manipulate the investigation and disciplinary process for its own political gain. Patricia Robertson, QC, the barrister defending the firm and three of its lawyers, challenged Ben Saunders, the assistant head at the public inquiries, judicial review and claims team at the MoD over relations between the ministry and the solicitors’ watchdog.
“You both took the view that Leigh Day was guilty as charged,” Robertson said to Saunders, who responded: “I wouldn’t go that far.” Robertson told the tribunal that evidence showed that defence ministers put Saunders “under significant scrutiny” and pushed him to press the SRA to bring disciplinary proceedings against the firm.
Leigh Day, its founder, Martyn Day, his partner Sapna Malik and a junior solicitor, Anna Crowther, face a range of misconduct charges over their handling of claims brought on behalf of Iraqis in the wake of the 2004 Battle of Danny Boy. All three lawyers deny the misconduct charges.
But yesterday its defence team accused the SRA of pandering to the defence chiefs for its own purposes. Robertson told the tribunal that the authority was involved in a long-running power struggle with the Law Society, the body that represents 130,000 solicitors in England and Wales. She said the authority was battling for independence from the society.
The regulator has also been pushing to lower the standard of proof in disciplinary hearings involving solicitors, reducing it from the current criminal standard to the civil standard, which would arguably make convictions easier. “The SRA was using these proceedings to lobby the government for professional reform,” Robertson put to Saunders, who acknowledged: “That is a fair characterisation of the situation.”