A three-year project to understand the ethical problems that arose for lawyers involved in the Post Office scandal, and how they can be avoided in future, has been launched.
Professor Richard Moorhead, leading the research at the University of Exeter with Professor Rebecca Helm, said researchers would speak to in-house and litigation lawyers, as well as the victims of the Post Office, to look beyond the specific events and learn how pressure is exerted on lawyers.
Professor Moorhead said the study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, would involve “three years of concentrated work”.
Researchers would talk to “a significant body of victims and others” involved in the scandal about their experience of the miscarriages of justice “and the ethical problems” lawyers faced.
He said researchers would also be working with in-house and litigation lawyers who were not involved to explore the “causes and decision-making models” used by professionals that lay behind ethical problems – such as aggressive risk management, inappropriate litigation conduct, failure to disclose documents or “whitewashing” through independent investigation.
“The aim is to develop and test practically relevant theories of why lawyers make the ethical mistakes they do which can help lawyers avoid those mistakes and help regulators and others think about how they deal with these issues.”
He said the research would “look beyond the specifics of the Post Office scandal at the kinds of issues which we have seen bubbling up in a lot of other cases”, whether it was non-disclosure agreements or the Solicitors Regulation Authority thematic review of in-house lawyers, published last month, which revealed that a significant minority had come under pressure to act unethically.
A research team at Exeter University’s Evidence-based Justice Lab has been working on the scandal for two years with in-house lawyer consultancy LBC Wise Counsel as its professional partner, which will continue in the role.
Professor Moorhead said this work had led to Sir Wyn Williams’ Post Office inquiry broadening its remit, with the result that the conduct of the lawyers was now “firmly in its sights”.
He said the research would enable the team “to deepen our engagement with the victims affected by the scandal, ensure that the right lessons are learned about what went wrong and why and work on practical strategies to reduce the chances of such terrible events happening again”.
The project’s other co-leader, Dr Karen Nokes from UCL in London, commented: “The scandal shows that when it works badly the legal system, and lawyers in particular, can have egregious effects on ordinary people’s lives.
“Through our research with victims and lawyers, we plan to develop strategies that can be used to encourage lawyers to consider and, if necessary rethink, their own professional mindsets.”
Findings will be shared through a website, working papers, briefings and videocasts. Researchers also aim to meet the Legal Services Board, the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the justice select committee, and keep victims updated about their work.