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Law Society targets anti-solicitor websites as it turns up heat over Wonga's fake firms


Google ruling: Law Society to target one website as test

The Law Society is planning to use the European Court of Justice’s ruling on the right to be forgotten online to challenge anti-solicitor websites, Legal Futures can reveal.

The news comes as the society said it was to write to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), Solicitors Regulation Authority and the police over payday lender Wonga’s use of bogus law firms to threaten customers who were behind on repayments.

The Law Society is currently monitoring 12 anti-solicitor websites in the wake of the in 2011 to bring down Solicitors from Hell.

According to papers seen by its membership committee last week, the society periodically takes and preserves screenshots, and logs and investigates all complaints from members about the sites, but none are generating the volume of complaints necessary to justify legal action.

However, the committee was told that the Google v González case “may provide a new legal basis for a representative complaint to Google about harmful websites, and if that does not succeed, to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)”.

The papers explained: “The aim would be to see Google remove the links to a site from their search engine results. If successful, it would vastly reduce the damage sites can do. The aim is to utilise this approach for the site with the highest number of complaints to see if it works.”

On Wonga – which has been ordered by the FCA to compensate 45,000 customers over the letters from fake law firms ‘Chainey D’Amato & Shannon’ and ‘Barker and Lowe Legal Recoveries‘, totaling around £2.6m – Chancery Lane said the practice was “alarming both to the public and to Law Society members”.

It highlighted a “loophole” where organisations and individuals can pass themselves off as legal professionals by calling themselves law firms – only holding yourself out as a ‘solicitor’ is a criminal offence. Wonga did not do this.

A Law Society spokesman said: “We are writing to the Financial Conduct Authority, the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the police about this. We are establishing the facts. The case has highlighted a number of important issues around organisations and individuals presenting themselves in a misleading way so that the public believe them to be regulated legal professionals, such as solicitors.”

Chancery Lane has asked the Metropolitan Police to investigate whether Wonga has committed the offence of obtaining pecuniary advantage by deception and blackmail; or offences under section 21 of the Solicitors Act 1974 (misuse of the title of ‘solicitor’); or offences under section 17(1)(a) of the Legal Services Act 2007 (the conduct of reserved legal activities, such as issuing court proceedings, by unauthorised persons).

It has asked the SRA to investigate the latter two as well, with a view to prosecution if there is sufficient evidence. It has asked the FCA for more information about Wonga’s conduct.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Justice announced today that it is pressing ahead with plans to give the Claims Management Regulator powers to fine claims management companies for breaches of the conditions of their authorisation.

This will include using information gathered by unlawful unsolicited calls and texts, wasting people’s time and money by making spurious or unsubstantiated claims, and misleading marketing.

Under the proposals the fines will be based on the turnover of the company involved and the nature of the offences. For large claims firms, fines could be up to 20% of their annual turnover.

Andy Cullwick, head of marketing at marketing collective First4Lawyers, said: “We’re pleased to see the MoJ moving to tackle CMCs who continue to use outdated and unethical marketing practices to generate leads. However, while the MoJ’s proposed fines may be a deterrent, we believe naming and shaming and removing the licence to operate of firms that flout the rules will be far more effective.”