The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has stepped up its probe of solicitors who acted for the Post Office during the sub-postmasters’ scandal, it has emerged.
Earlier this month, the regulator obtained a High Court order under section 44B of the Solicitors Act 1974 that the Post Office disclose certain documents.
Nick Gould, one of the solicitors for the sub-postmasters, said last April that he was writing to the SRA to request “a thorough investigation into the role of every lawyer acting for the Post Office”.
The SRA said it was gathering information to decide on whether to take action.
A Post Office spokesman said: “Following discussions with the Solicitors Regulation Authority, we have agreed the wording of a Section 44B disclosure notice regarding historical matters.
“We are fully complying with the notice and will be providing relevant documents within the timeframe requested. The disclosure notice does not relate to individuals that are involved with the Post Office today.”
Barrister Paul Marshall, another who has been at the forefront of pro bono efforts to support wrongly convicted sub-postmasters, identified four of “the most obvious big questions” for the SRA to answer.
Writing on social media yesterday, he said the first was who amongst the Post Office’s lawyers knew about the 2013 ‘Clarke advice’ “that unequivocally revealed that the Post Office had serially been prosecuting its postmasters on a flawed basis – a fact reluctantly revealed only in November 2020?”
The second was who were the lawyers involved in “keeping the lid” on that knowledge and the third was why a document of such importance was kept from the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which began investigating in 2015, “when its disclosure would have massively simplified the CCRC’s task and arguably enabled convictions considered to be unsafe to have been referred by the CCRC to the Court of Appeal, long, long before June 2020”.
His final question was which lawyers advised the Post Office in connection with its strategic decision to stop prosecuting in 2014 – “and what lawyers (and indeed others) were concerned with the ‘management’ of the reasons for that decision and that knowledge?”
Mr Marshall added: “Maybe lawyers were not involved, but if they were, there are some quite difficult questions. ‘Management’ may have a variety of interesting meanings.”
Separately, Paul Gilbert – a former general counsel who founded LBC Wise Counsel, which works to develop in-house lawyers – said yesterday that that he was “ashamed” that lawyers had “facilitated corporate bullying on an industrial scale”.
Writing after the Post Office inquiry opened and began hearing testimony from those affected by the scandal, Mr Gilbert said he now believed there was “a systemic flaw” in the legal profession.
“For too long lawyers have conflated gold-plated client service, demonstrable commerciality and their own aspirational advancement, and elevated these three things to be the loadstar of high-performance professionalism.
“In doing so lawyers have walked past their one true calling, to be the balance in the system that ensures the powerful cannot bully without consequences.
“The Post Office, and others, have used legal process to facilitate egregious bullying when their lawyers should have been the last hope for doing the right thing…
“As a profession we need to pause for thought. We need to get a grip of our moral compass, and we need to see that we have become part of the problem when by definition we should be part of the solution.”
This was, Mr Gilbert said, “a reset moment” for lawyers “to reassert that their primary responsibility is to act in the best interests of justice, not their clients, and to do so with integrity and independence”.
LBC Wise Counsel is one of the supporters of the Evidence-Based Justice Lab at Exeter University, which is looking into the lessons of the Post Office scandal for corporate governance, criminal justice and lawyer regulation.
The lab has also called for the Post Office’s lawyers to be investigated for possible professional misconduct.