Post Office victim and SRA chief urge lawyers to call out colleagues

Castleton: You are all regulators

Both a sub-postmaster victim of the Post Office scandal and the chief executive of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) have urged lawyers to call out colleagues’ improper behaviour.

Lee Castleton, whose story was one of those featured in ITV’s drama, Mr Bates vs The Post Office, told lawyers in the audience of a Legal Services Board conference yesterday that “you are all regulators”.

He explained: “Every one of you can call anyone out. If somebody in your practice or coworker or whomever is doing something that they shouldn’t be doing, call them out. Tell them. You’re all able to do that.

“It shouldn’t be that you need a regulator to tell you what is right and what isn’t right. You are all human beings.”

SRA chief executive Paul Philip agreed that “each and every lawyer has a role in self-regulation”.

He continued: “There is no doubt about that. And if every lawyer thought that way, then we would need far less regulation than we have today.”

Mr Castleton became emotional as he explained that, as an electrical engineer, he self-regulated every day.

“I would never leave anything that could cause harm to anybody on a personal level. It’s really, really important to me that I go home every night and I’m able to sleep. I would question whether any of the lawyers involved in my case particularly should have slept.”

Addressing the annual Reshaping Legal Services conference, Mr Castleton – who was made bankrupt by the Post Office after it pursued the money supposedly missing from his branch through the courts – outlined the difficulties of being a litigant in person and later part of the Bates group litigation.

“It was a huge learning curve for me and very isolating, very difficult to understand and comprehend the little terms and nuances and the details that the judge really needed to see or hear,” he explained.

With the Horizon system assumed to be accurate, his task was to disprove this. “That’s a very difficult thing to do when you don’t actually own the system [or] have any access to the system because from the day that I was suspended, I had no further access to it.

“I couldn’t just draw down paperwork or do anything else, [meaning I was] completely relying on disclosure. And as we have heard from the inquiry, disclosure isn’t really one of Post Office’s strong points.”

More broadly, Mr Castleton said he had felt that the interests of the sub-postmasters were always “at the end of the list” and that this continued now as they sought redress through the compensation schemes.

His comments came in the wake of MPs on the business and trade select committee recommending yesterday that the Post Office should have no further involvement in any redress programmes, labelling it as “not fit for purpose to administer any of the schemes required to make amends”.

The committee cited both victims’ lack of confidence in the firm that “ruined the lives of innocent sub-postmasters” and its chaotic leadership. Mr Castleton explained that it had been “very difficult to engage with somebody that’s actually the perpetrator”.

In his comments, Mr Philip said the SRA did “far too much enforcement” and he questioned whether there should be more focus on ethics in lawyers’ training.

He continued: “More importantly from my point of view, there’s something about culture in law firms that allows this type of behavior to happen. There’s something about the lawyer or perhaps a litigator thinking themselves far too much, as we’ve seen in the Post Office inquiry, as a hired gun and try to get the outcome for the client if they want and having far, far too little respect for… the rule of law, impacting them [acting] independently as an officer at the court.”

Richard Moorhead, professor of law and legal ethics at Exeter University, and a leading commentator on the scandal, said the research he and Professor Steven Vaughan of University College London had done over the years showed that “lawyers, and transactional lawyers in particular, tend towards a minimalistic or apathetic attitude to ethics – not always but often enough for it to be a concern for us”.

Listing some of the behaviours by lawyers involved in the Post Office scandal – “putting the client’s interests first before the interests of justice, before integrity, before independence, and sometimes using the law and confidentiality in particular as a tool to take advantage of relatively powerless individuals in their thousands” – he said elements of the conduct probably came within the professional rules. “That poses a really interesting, important challenge to the regulators.”

Professor Vaughan added that a common failing among practitioners was “a lack of reflection” beyond client needs and demands.

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