Taskforce to investigate ethics of City law firms acting for oligarchs

Beringer: Growing pressure on lawyers to exercise greater ethical judgment

A heavy hitting group of City lawyers and anti-corruption experts is to examine the ethics of solicitors providing civil legal services to overseas oligarchs and kleptocrats.

The taskforce on business ethics and the legal profession is charged with delivering recommendations to reconcile reputational and ethical risks of providing services with rights to representation.

It is chaired by former Allen & Overy senior partner Guy Beringer, who said the right to representation in civil matters was not clearly established like it was in criminal law.

The deputy chair, Robert Barrington, professor of anti-corruption practice at Centre for the Study of Corruption at Sussex University, argued earlier this year that there was “a group of clients who should not be represented by lawyers” and the profession should be discussing where to draw the line.

The taskforce has been created by the Institute of Business Ethics, which said the move followed the high-profile exit of many firms from Russian business following the invasion of Ukraine, and long-standing concerns by the UK, EU and US governments that lawyers may be playing a role in enabling overseas corruption.

“Civil society representatives have warned that UK legal services are too accessible to corrupt capital, while members of the legal profession have warned of the risks of undermining core principles such as the right to representation, access to justice, and the principle of not associating the lawyer with the client.”

Dr Ian Peters, director of the Institute of Business Ethics, added: “There are increasing examples of oligarchs using or looking to use our courts and UK-based firms for their civil proceedings and commercial transactions.

“This means practitioners are walking a tightrope between professional obligations to provide representation and commercial considerations on one side, and the ethics of representing such individuals and what that means for public perceptions of their firms on the other.”

Mr Beringer acknowledged that there has been “growing pressure on lawyers to exercise greater ethical judgment”, in relation both to the clients for whom they will act and the work they undertake for those clients.

But he observed: “In matters of criminal law, there is a well-established principle that all defendants should have a right of representation. In relation to commercial matters which have no criminal element, no such principle has been clearly established.

“The long-term interests of the profession and the reputation of the City of London would be well served by greater clarity and consensus on the ethical principles which should apply in civil matters when law firms are taking on new clients or taking new instructions for existing clients.”

Professor Barrington described having civil society representatives and senior lawyers sitting around the same table as an important step forward.

“We all have a common interest in working out how to reconcile the business needs of law firms, with the duties of lawyers to act in the public interest, and the rights of victims in faraway countries – which are easily overlooked when the money and transactions come to London.

“The concern must be that if the legal profession does not get its own house in order, there will be an unwanted alternative such as heavy-handed legislation or some form of international blacklisting.”

The taskforce is expected to share its recommendations within 12 months. Its other members, who are all serving in a personal capacity, are:

  • Michael Bennett, former partner and general counsel, Linklaters;
  • Sara Carnegie, legal director, International Bar Association;
  • Sarah de Gay, president of the City of London Law Society and special advisor (and former general counsel) to Slaughter and May;
  • Jonathan Goldsmith, consultant in European and international legal services and member of the Law Society council;
  • Duncan Hames, director of policy and programmes, Transparency International UK;
  • Susan Hawley, executive director, Spotlight on Corruption;
  • Professor Stephen Mayson, Centre for Ethics and Law, University College London;
  • Julie Norris, regulatory partner, Kingsley Napley;
  • Patricia Robertson KC, Fountain Court Chambers, former vice-chair Bar Standards Board; and
  • Jeff Twentyman, chair of sustainability and responsible business, Slaughter and May.

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