The Solicitors Regulation Authority is looking to “urgently” conclude its investigation into the activities of the two law firms – Public Interest Lawyers and Leigh Day & Co – whose behaviour was heavily criticised by defence secretary Michael Fallon in the wake of the findings of the al-Sweady inquiry.
In a statement issued this week, the SRA said it noted “with concern” the inquiry’s findings and the issues raised by Mr Fallon last month.
The inquiry cleared British soldiers of the most serious allegations of unlawful killing of Iraqi nationals after a firefight during the Iraq war in 2004, but found there had been some mistreatment of detainees.
After the inquiry reported, Mr Fallon told Parliament: “The Iraqi detainees, their accomplices and their lawyers must bear the brunt of the criticism for the protracted nature and £31m cost of this unnecessary public inquiry.
“The falsity of the overwhelming majority of their allegations, the extraordinarily late disclosure of a document showing the nine detainees to have been insurgents and the delay by their lawyers in withdrawing the allegations of torture and murder have prompted the Solicitors Regulation Authority to investigate possible breaches of professional standards.
“The authority is expected to complete its investigation into the two firms responsible, Public Interest Lawyers and Leigh Day and Co, early next year.”
Mr Fallon said that had the Legal Services Commission been aware in 2008 of this document, it would have refused legal aid for the judicial review that took place then. He called on the firms to apologise.
The SRA statement said: “We have been investigating aspects of this matter during 2014, although the falsity of the allegations was established in the findings of the inquiry published on 17 December 2014. We will be urgently concluding existing strands of investigation and reviewing the other concerns raised in the ministerial statement.”
The SRA it had also noted comments by Sir Tony Baldry in Parliament about how the firms acquired their clients. Sir Tony said: “There are suggestions that they were paying agents to go around Iraq to drum up business, often not knowing who their clients were. This seems to me to be yet another issue that needs to be properly investigated by the SRA.”
The SRA said: “We will review the evidence.”
In its initial response last month, Public Interest Lawyers described the inquiry as “legally necessary, morally justified and politically required”, noting that some of the allegations had been proved.
It said: “Until the evidence was complete the families of the deceased had an understandable, genuine and sincere belief that mutilation, torture and murder of their loved ones had occurred. We are delighted that after this lengthy period of time the families of the deceased no longer have this cloud of uncertainty hanging over their heads and are able to find some resolution of their understandable need to discover how their loved ones died.
“We are also hopeful that the recommendations made by the inquiry will be adopted wholly by the MoD.”
Leigh Day represented Iraqi claimants taking civil claims against the Ministry of Defence – which were stayed at a very early stage – but not at either the inquiry or the earlier judicial review.
In its response, Leigh Day admitted it had not appreciated the significance of the document when it was obtained. “On this occasion we did not get things right. We have apologised to the Inquiry for not realising the significance of this document sooner.”
The firm said that it had been working with the SRA “to ensure that in all areas, especially the demanding foreign work of the firm, we have training and structures in place to prevent any similar mistakes in the future”.