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Cameron wades in on Leigh Day’s conduct in Al Sweady inquiry

Human rights firm defends its work the 'British rule of law in action' as prime minister criticises lawyers

6 January 2016

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David Cameron has said Leigh Day has questions to answer over its involvement in the Al Sweady inquiry, before criticising the new shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry for accepting a £14,500 donation from the firm.

'I do think it is instructive that we have lost a shadow secretary of state for defence who believed in our nuclear deterrent and instead we've got someone who apparently takes funds from Leigh Day. I think that leaves us with serious questions to answer,' said the prime minister.

Leigh Day is to face the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) after a number of allegations were made against the firm following an investigation by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) into the findings of the Al Sweady inquiry.

The inquiry was set up to investigate whether British soldiers tortured and murdered Iraqi detainees who had been taken into custody following the battle of Danny Boy, a British-named checkpoint north of Basra, in May 2004.

The primary allegation made by the SRA concerns Leigh Day's supposed failure to recognise the significance of a letter identifying Iraqi clients as members of the opposing Mahdi Army, which the Ministry of Defence (MoD) claims was known to the firm.

The personal injury and human rights specialists have refuted this, citing the December 2014 report by retired High Court judge and inquiry chairman, Sir Thayne Forbes, which highlighted the MoD's failure to produce documentation at the judicial review that proceeded between 2007 and 2009.

The regulator's investigation of Leigh Day began in April 2014 after the MoD criticised the firm for failing to recognise the significance of a one-page Arabic document and a handwritten translation it had on file.

The document, which later became known as 'the OMS detainee list', was provided in August 2013 when the inquiry had requested that Leigh Day disclose any relevant material it held.

Nine detainees told the inquiry that they had been captured by the British Army while in the fields surrounding the battle, but they had been in the area for otherwise innocent reasons.

Leigh Day has claimed the OMS list was provided to the firm by a journalist who had been writing from Iraq for a UK national newspaper in 2004.

On the firm's suggestion, the journalist met with the Royal Military Police twice with material to be copied. Leigh Day has questioned whether the MoD itself has had the OMS detainee list since 2004.

Leigh Day said the decision to refer the firm to the SDT was premature as that it has not been given a proper opportunity to respond to the allegations. However, the SRA has argued that the firm has had more than four months to respond to itsallegations, with seven weeks to respond to additional allegations and that there was a clear public interest in resolving the matter as quickly as possible. 

Claims that Leigh Day acted improperly by holding a press conference to push for an independent inquiry, entering into a prohibited referral fee agreement, and touting for clients, have all been denied by the firm.

The SRA said it noted with concern the findings of the Al-Sweady Inquiry and the issues raised in the Michael Fallon, the defence secretary in December 2014.

The Minister said: '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 SRA to investigate possible breaches of professional standards.

'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. That would have spared the service personnel a further six years of uncertainty and anxiety. It would have spared the relatives of the deceased a further six years of false hope, and it would have saved the British taxpayer a very high bill.'

Speaking at Prime Minister's Questions today, Conservative MP Stewart Jackson described the firm as 'immoral, thieving, and ambulance-chasing lawyers Leigh Day, who together with Public Interest Lawyers specialise in hounding out brave service personnel in Iraq with spurious claims'.

In a statement released by the firm, a spokesperson said: 'Leigh Day stands full square behind the work we have been involved in over the last ten years to assist Iraqis who have claims in relation to abuse they say they have suffered.

'No one is above the law, not us, not the British Army, and not the government. This is the British rule of law in action and is surely what our soldiers fight to defend.

'Leigh Day has taken care to operate within the rules governing solicitors in terms of how it obtained work from Iraqi clients. We refute all of the allegations that have been made against us.'

Paul Philip, chief executive of the SRA, commented: 'These are serious allegations and there is a clear public interest in resolving this matter as quickly as possible. Therefore we have referred Leigh Day, and a number of individual solicitors, to the independent Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal. 'It is now for the tribunal to decide to hear the allegations and decide what course of action to take.'

Matthew Rogers is an editorial assistant at Solicitors Journalmatthew.rogers@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @sportslawmatt

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Risk & Compliance Professional negligence