The Law Society’s freedom of information adjudicator has ordered the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to disclose an investigator’s report, saying the regulator had overlooked “the public interest in transparency as a good in itself”.
The adjudicator, Adam Sowerbutts, explained that the case involved the theft of cheques worth £50,000 from a law firm.
The firm’s bookkeeper took the stolen cheques to a cheque-cashing agency between 2007 and 2010, which cashed them even though they were crossed and not made out in his name.
Mr Sowerbutts said the agency’s owner, referred to as RL, made his freedom of information application after litigation with the law firm and “several years” of correspondence with the SRA.
RL complained that a solicitor referred to as JF, who employed the bookkeeper, was struck off in 2012 over a separate matter – acting dishonestly in the use of client money – but had before that been allowed to continue trading by the SRA “when it knew that he was behaving dishonestly”.
RL asked the SRA to disclose its investigator’s report on JF, whether he was reported to the police, whether the law firm’s financial difficulties were reported to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS), and what action the regulator had taken prior to its intervention in the law firm.
In his submissions to the adjudicator, RL argued that the SRA had “turned a blind eye” and allowed JF to continue trading, “effectively” with its approval.
He argued that there was an “overwhelming interest” both for him and for the public in general in knowing and seeing the “actual decisions” made by the regulator.
Mr Sowerbutts said RL’s cheque-cashing agency had “exhausted its assets and went into voluntary liquidation” after it was sued by the law firm.
In its submissions to the adjudicator, the SRA argued that the investigator’s report was “not a complete and final picture and may distort the public’s perception of the case”, and further that there was enough information already available to inform the public and reassure it that the SRA had conducted itself appropriately.
However, the adjudicator said the SRA’s position “entirely overlooks the public interest in transparency as a good in itself; under the code it is for the SRA to show why information should be withheld; simply saying that disclosure adds nothing to the public’s knowledge is not, in my view, sufficient to justify upholding an exemption under the code; a more compelling argument is needed.
“Furthermore, in the present case, the SRA’s position that no public interest would be served by disclosure of the report was, in my analysis, simply wrong…
“There is a strong public interest in reassuring the public that the SRA undertakes its investigations thoroughly and properly.”
However, he accepted that there were aspects that would have to redacted, such as elements which revealed how the SRA undertake investigations. “Such information could be of assistance to wrongdoers and could hamper future investigations.”
The regulator said its decision on whether to report JF to the police was part of his “sensitive personal data”, as was its decision on whether to refer him to DBIS.
However, during the course of the adjudication, Mr Sowerbutts said the SRA “confirmed that it did not report the firm to DBIS for trading while insolvent”.
Mr Sowerbutts said: “Whilst that revised response may have left the applicant asking why that was the case, that question is a matter which is beyond the scope of this particular adjudication.”
The adjudicator found that the regulator “did not respond properly” to RL’s first requests.
“It should have disclosed more information than it originally did, and it should have confirmed that some information requested was not actually held.”
He found that the SRA was correct neither to confirm nor deny reporting JF to the police, as this was sensitive personal data.