The boss of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) said today that the decision to shut down three law firms caught in a Daily Mail undercover sting had nothing to do with the political pressure that followed.
Chief executive Paul Philip said the evidence provided by the Mail – of lawyers seeming to suggest ways in which a potential client could game the immigration system – was of a type that the regulator rarely received, which meant it could act quickly.
He added that the much-publicised meeting he attended this week with Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk was confidential and “what I expected”. When asked what that had been, he replied: “I expected it to be professional and robust.”
In a media briefing this morning, Mr Philip said it was “not often” that the SRA received the type of evidence of misconduct that the Mail managed to gather.
“Given we have that video evidence, we felt it was right to act decisively and we did that. I think we did completely the right thing in relation to our mandate, unrelated to any political pressure at that point in time.”
He went on: “If you take something like anti-money laundering or financial sanctions, we go out and talk to law firms and look at files etc. You don’t see anyone saying ‘I told my client to lie’ or ‘I told my client to hide money’. We wouldn’t expect to see that.
“The tiny amount of people who engage in that activity are probably bright enough not to write it down.”
In 2017, the BBC ‘File on Four’ radio programme carried out an almost identical sting but the publicity and political comment that followed was nothing like the same and the SRA did not shut down the firms involved. It did take action, however, with one of the solicitors caught on tape struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) in March this year.
Asked why that was different, Mr Philip said: “Things move on. If that type of thing happened today, I think we’d do exactly the same thing [ie shut down the firms].”
SRA chair Anna Bradley stressed that it was “minutely aware” of the danger of an independent regulator being seen to respond to political pressure but equally it was important for the SRA to have “the right kinds of relationships” with both government and opposition politicians.
“What they do and what they say has an impact on what we then need to do and say because they may change the frame of reference or do all sorts of things which set a different context in which we operate.
“We need those relationships but we need to retain our independence and we’re aware of that constantly. Anyone who has that independent status thinks of it as a very delicate line that you have to tread, making it clear to people where you think they might be asking you to do something which might be a step too far.”
Mr Philip rejected the suggestion that the SRA should not have agreed to attend the meeting. “Why would we not at least go and see what they have to say? It would have been wholly unreasonable not to go.”
The SRA has used the issue to reiterate its longstanding call for unlimited fining powers and Mr Philip argued that it would be a greater deterrent to misconduct.
Referrals to the SDT took time, he noted, while the ability to fine partners and the entity too should encourage “self-regulation by the entity of what their partners are doing”.
“If I was a partner in one of those firms and I was liable to a very large fine from the regulator because of something someone does in the office next door to me, I might be much more interested in what they’re doing than I previously was,” he said.