There is “a group of clients who should not be represented by lawyers” and the profession should be discussing where to draw the line, an academic and leading anti-corruption campaigner has argued.
Professor Robert Barrington, former head of Transparency International, called on the legal profession to “take the lead” in tackling its “crisis of ethics”.
The academic, professor of anti-corruption practice at Sussex University, said an example of the kind of client who should not be represented was a “kleptocrat who has stolen the resources of their own country”.
He said the legal profession was “reluctant to admit” there was a problem – he warned last year that this could lead to reforms being imposed on it instead.
“Sometimes there are competing rights and the rights of victims are neglected, particularly if they are in a foreign country, compared to an oligarch with a big wallet.”
He said the issue of “professional enablers” of corruption would not go away.
“There is a crisis of ethics in the profession. If there is a crisis for the profession, there is a crisis for society. The profession should take the lead.”
Speaking at a Westminster Policy Forum seminar, Next steps for legal ethics, Professor Barrington said: “The problem I’ve got with the debate at the moment is that the legal profession seems to be asking ‘should a line be drawn?’ instead of ‘where should the line be drawn’?”
Iain Miller, partner at Kingsley Napley and an expert on regulation, questioned what would happen to a client who faced a civil claim where their rights were an issue.
It was only when the legal work involved moved into “transactional areas” that it became easier for lawyers to say “we cannot act for people in these circumstances”.
Mr Miller said the “wider public interest” and the public interest in protecting the rule of law and the administration of justice were not always the same thing, and the issue needed to be looked at more carefully.
There was also a danger of “legislation by warning notices” from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), which went further than current legislation.
Mr Miller said it was better for Parliament to deal with strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) than the profession, “where not everyone is regulated and not everyone is regulated in the same way”.
Earlier in the session, Harvey Weinstein’s one-time PA, Zelda Perkins, co-founder of the Can’t Buy My Silence campaign against non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), said a lawyer’s first duty was to “justice and the court” and not to “a particular client’s reputation”.
She said people were being pressured into signing NDAs for the wrong reasons “every single day” and this included a woman in hospital after trying to kill herself, who was “pushed to sign and did sign an agreement with a well-known broadcaster”.
Ms Perkins said lawyers were “swayed by the adversarial nature of negotiation and do not understand the client experience”.
She added that “legislation needs to back up guidance and regulators need to up their guidance”.
At the end of the session, panel chair and former justice secretary Robert Buckland said there was a danger, when lawyers were deciding whether an action was “within the spectrum of ethical behaviour”, that they would substitute their “personal opinion for a question of professional ethics, which I think are different”.
Mr Buckland called for a “global set of principles for all parts of the profession”.