London law firm Leigh Day has come out fighting after it emerged that the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has referred it to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal over its conduct in representing hundreds of Iraqis who claimed that they had been abused or unlawfully detained by British forces during or in the aftermath of the Iraq war.
The tribunal has yet to certify that there is a case to answer, but the firm issued a long statement yesterday describing the referral as “premature” because it “has not been given a proper opportunity to respond to these allegations”.
The al-Sweady inquiry cleared British soldiers of the most serious allegations of unlawful killing of Iraqi nationals after a firefight during the Iraq war in 2004, but found there had been some mistreatment of detainees.
Afterwards, almost exactly a year ago, defence secretary Michael Fallon told Parliament: “The Iraqi detainees, their accomplices and their lawyers must bear the brunt of the criticism for the protracted nature and £31m cost of this unnecessary public inquiry.
“The falsity of the overwhelming majority of their allegations, the extraordinarily late disclosure of a document showing the nine detainees to have been insurgents and the delay by their lawyers in withdrawing the allegations of torture and murder have prompted the Solicitors Regulation Authority to investigate possible breaches of professional standards.”
That document, known as the OMS detainee list, contradicted what the detainees had told the inquiry and, Leigh Day says, what they told the firm.
The SRA has been investigating since 2014 and said last January that it was looking to “urgently” conclude its investigation into the activities of Leigh Day and also Birmingham and London firm Public Interest Lawyers (PIL), which was also involved in the case.
Paul Philip, SRA chief executive, said: “We have been looking into the serious issues arising from the inquiry report since its publication in December 2014. Leigh Day has been closely involved in the detail for some years before that.
“Our investigation has involved the review of a huge amount of complex and detailed evidence. The firm has had more than four months to respond to our allegations, and then a further seven weeks to respond to additional allegations. In our view there is no duplication between the two sets of allegations. They have not as yet responded to either set.
“These are serious allegations and there is a clear public interest in resolving this matter as quickly as possible. Therefore we have referred Leigh Day, and a number of individual solicitors, to the independent Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal. It is now for the tribunal to decide to hear the allegations.”
No decision has yet been made on Public Interest Lawyers, which rejects all the allegations against it.
According to Leigh Day’s account, in mid-August, the SRA asked for its response to eight allegations, primarily questioning why it missed the significance of the OMS detainee list and the impact of this on the inquiry.
“The firm agreed with the SRA that it would respond to those allegations by the end of October. Ten days before Leigh Day was due to serve its responses, the firm received a second set of allegations, a number of which overlapped with the first.
“Following consultation with the firm’s legal team, including independent external solicitors and counsel, Leigh Day responded to the SRA that, as a result of the considerable overlap between the two sets of allegations, they should not and could not be answered piecemeal.
“Instead, the firm has proposed that all of the first set of allegations and those overlapping in the second set be answered by the end of January 2016 and the remainder by the end of February 2016.
“To put that timescale in context, the SRA has made its allegations after an investigation lasting at least a year, if not longer, and has asked for responses to two sets of allegations and lengthy reports and associated appendices.
“The firm’s external legal team offered to meet the SRA to explain in detail why this approach was necessary. The SRA refused this reasoned proposal. The team has been going through hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, and speaking to many people, all to inform the firm’s response to the SRA allegations.
“Leigh Day is disappointed that the SRA has decided to refer the firm to the SDT without waiting for responses to any of their allegations. Leigh Day refutes each and every one of the allegations.”
A spokesperson added: “Leigh Day stands full square behind the work we have been involved in over the last 10 years to assist Iraqis who have claims in relation to abuse they say they have suffered. No-one is above the law, not us, not the British Army and not the government. This is the British rule of law in action and is surely what our soldiers fight to defend.
“The great majority of the claims that we have brought against the Ministry of Justice which have concluded have been successful. The few claims that have failed are proof that the system is working.
“Leigh Day has taken care to operate within the rules governing solicitors in terms of how it obtained work from Iraqi clients. We refute all of the allegations that have been made against us.”