The decision of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) yesterday to strike off human rights lawyer Phil Shiner over his conduct of abuse claims against British soldiers in Iraq has received unprecedented coverage across the media today and arguably put the entire legal profession on the back foot.
The tribunal upheld 22 charges of professional misconduct, including dishonesty and lack of integrity, against the one-time head of Birmingham law firm Public Interest Lawyers, which shut down last year after its legal aid contracts were pulled.
They included: authorising unsolicited direct approaches to potential clients arising out of the Battle of Danny Boy; paying prohibited referral fees to, and approving an improper fee-sharing arrangement with, a middleman, Mazin Younis, and later bribing him to change his evidence on how the clients had been identified; misleading the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA); failing to comply with his duty of candour to the court; failing to comply with his duty of full and frank disclosure to the Legal Services Commission; and making improper allegations at a press conference that the British Army had unlawfully killed, tortured and mistreated Iraqi civilians, including his clients.
Mr Shiner was also ordered to pay interim costs of £250,000, a huge sum by the standards of tribunal cases, where final costs bills are almost always in five figures at most.
Paul Philip, SRA chief executive, said: “We welcome the SDT’s decision to strike off Professor Shiner, who has been found to have been dishonest. It is important that solicitors can bring forward difficult cases, but the public must be able to place their trust in them.
“His misconduct has caused real distress to soldiers, their families and to the families of Iraqi people who thought that their loved ones had been murdered or tortured. More than £30m of public funds were spent on investigating what proved to be false and dishonest allegations.”
John Gould, senior partner of south London law firm Russell-Cooke, who acted for the SRA in the case, said: “The rule of law depends on the ability of lawyers to represent unpopular clients with independence. The ability of all lawyers to do so is preserved by the public’s confidence that lawyers are held to account if they break the rules.”
Mr Shiner is now also under criminal investigation over the legal aid money his firm received.
Many papers noted that Mr Shiner was named the Law Society’s solicitor of the year at the 2007 Excellence Awards, and in 2004 was named human rights lawyer of the year by civil liberties groups Liberty and Justice.
A Law Society spokewoman said: “Solicitors are held to exceptionally high professional and ethical standards. As with every profession, any solicitor whose actions violate the code of conduct or break the law is held to account and – through the SRA and SDT – there are robust, transparent disciplinary and regulatory procedures to deal with the rare occasions when there is misconduct.
“The Law Society Excellence awards are a recognition of the commitment that solicitors show in serving their clients, which underpins our world-renowned legal system. Phil Shiner was awarded in 2007 in recognition of his representation of the families of British soldiers killed in Iraq and his contribution to the landmark ruling in the Al Skeini case.”
This was the case about the death of Iraqi hotel worker Baha Mousa, who suffered 93 injuries in detention under control of British soldiers. The Law Lords held that the home secretary was in contravention of the Human Rights Act in denying a public inquiry.
Nonetheless, today’s newspaper editorials tore into him and the profession. “To this country’s self-righteous legal establishment – which garlanded him with awards – he was a campaigner for justice, and newspaper criticism of him was just ‘media-manufactured vilification’,” said the Daily Mail in a leader.
“Well now the truth is clear. As the Mail long suspected, human rights lawyer Phil Shiner, who more than anyone led the shameful witch-hunt against our armed forces, was utterly corrupt…
“Rightly, these victims are suing him. If there is any justice, they will take him for every penny of his legal aid-funded fortune. The criminal investigation must now be pursued relentlessly… The legal profession should examine how Shiner got away with it for all these years while it was busy attacking the press.”
The Sun observed how “for years the usual leftie suspects defended odious tank-chasing lawyer Phil Shiner. They’ve all gone very quiet…. After one success, he made a career posing as a valiant crusader for the truth. Each case kept money pouring in – so he paid a tout to concoct more. We are delighted to see this sanctimonious parasite struck off.”
Daily Express columnist Harry Hodges said that “the only time in this sorry saga that the public interest has been served was yesterday when the tribunal finally rid us of this hateful character”.
The Times welcomed Mr Shiner’s “fall from grace”, but said “some pressing questions, however, still need to be addressed”.
It said: “For many years Mr Shiner was hailed as a model campaigner. He was named solicitor of the year by the Law Society in 2007 and he received awards in 2004 from two human rights groups. Yet not a single prosecution ever emerged from the more than 3,000 allegations of British army murder and wrongdoing presented by Mr Shiner to the Iraq Historic Allegations Team. More than £30m of public funds has been spent investigating what turned out to be false and dishonest allegations.
“Sir Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, says that justice has been served and that Mr Shiner should apologise. Soldiers will want more: proper safeguards that they cannot in future be subjected to horrific allegations based on cooked-up evidence. The army is not beyond the law or beyond scrutiny. But when soldiers are sent abroad, into harm’s way, they are right to demand that their reputations not be sullied.”
The tribunal aims to publish its decision within seven weeks. Mr Shiner will then have 21 days to appeal.