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Russells under a duty to report JK Rowling breach, SRA says

Solicitors 'should not divulge confidential information without express permission' 

19 July 2013

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Russells, the London law firm which accidentally unmasked its client JK Rowling as the crime writer 'Robert Galbraith', was under a duty to report the breach of confidentiality, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has said.

Rowling said in a statement that she is "very angry" that her trust in Russells, a "reputable professional firm", had turned out be misplaced.

"A tiny number of people knew my pseudonym and it has not been pleasant to wonder for days how a woman whom I had never heard of prior to Sunday night could have found out something that many of my oldest friends did not know.

"To say that I am disappointed is an understatement. I had assumed that I could expect total confidentiality from Russells, a reputable professional firm, and I feel very angry that my trust turned out to be misplaced."

Commenting on the breach of client confidentiality by Russells, an SRA spokesman noted that the regulator is “aware of the issue”, but that “any discussions between ourselves and the firm remain confidential at this time”.

"It would only be if disciplinary action became necessary that this would become a matter of public record,” he added.

Citing Chapter 4 of the SRA Code of Conduct 2011, he said: "Solicitors owe a duty of confidentiality to their clients. They should not divulge confidential information without the express permission of their clients or where there is a legal obligation to do so.

"We would expect the compliance officer for legal practice (COLP) of any firm that had committed such a breach to report it to us."

In response to Rowling’s statement, Russells said it apologised "unreservedly for the disclosure caused by one of our partners, Chris Gossage, in revealing to his wife's best friend, Judith Callegari, during a private conversation that the true identity of Robert Galbraith was in fact JK Rowling.

"Whilst accepting his own culpability, the disclosure was made in confidence to someone he trusted implicitly. On becoming aware of the circumstances, we immediately notified JK Rowling's agent.

"We can confirm that this leak was not part of any marketing plan and that neither JK Rowling, her agent nor publishers were in any way involved."

It has been reported that Rowling's publishers have reprinted 140,000 copies of The Cuckoo's Calling to meet demand. It had sold just 1,500 copies before the author's true identity was uncovered.

Commenting on the news, Richard Moorhead, professor of law and professional ethics at UCL Faculty of Laws and director of the Centre for Ethics and Law, said: “Breach of confidentiality is prima facie serious. The practical and economic repercussions of the lawyer cocking up for the lawyer and his firm may be regarded as serious punishment in itself.”

“The firm will make the case that it has learnt its lesson (and perhaps meted out its own punishment and/or corrective responses beyond their current she can’t be much of a best friend strategy).

"That there is no economic loss to the client reduces its seriousness but being denied the pleasure of anonymous publication JK Rowling regards as important and who are we to disagree: its value is incalculably small or large, genuinely incommensurable with money,” he added in his blog post Harry Potter and the Breach of Confidence.

“The sanction in the circumstances need not be great but regulators need to deal with moments such as these and send signals. It is how cultures are set. Toleration of confidential breaches, gossip (if that IS what has happened) needs to be frowned upon and acted upon,” he concluded.

 

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