Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Investigating the private investigators

Investigating the private investigators


High professional standards are not guaranteed without proper regulation, writes Edward Whittingham

As a solicitor, you no doubt studied relentlessly for a minimum of four years, achieved a degree, were awarded excellent grades on the legal practice course, and slogged away for long hours during your training contract. In addition, you will have suffered through a host of continuing professional development courses to ensure you retain your practising certificate - and all under the watchful eye of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). Now you work at a law firm with an exemplary reputation and pride yourself on your professionalism, striving to reach the peak of your career. Sound familiar?

Yet, would it alarm you to know that the private investigator you recently instructed operates in an unregulated sector? In fact, that very same private investigator who is conducting work on your behalf (for one of your key clients) requires no formal qualifications in order to operate.

It is estimated there are over 10,000 private investigators operating within the UK who provide services such as process serving, insurance fraud investigation, tracing persons, and gathering proof of adultery. However, with no formal regulation, private investigators are free to operate as they wish without fear of reappraisal from any industry body.

As a former police officer and qualified solicitor, I was astonished to see that leading law firms were regularly instructing private investigators who I thought, given my experience, were simply sub-standard and not befitting of the firms they served.

In a recent discussion with a senior solicitor, I was told that he 'hadn't dared ask how the information had been obtained' and I wondered whether this was through sheer ignorance as to the fact there are very professional and reputable investigators out there, or if this was indicative of the poor view in which the profession is held generally.

Lack of credibility

It is not unfair to say that the perception of private investigation, as a whole, is a bad one; when I announced my intention to leave my position at an international firm to specialise in fraud investigation, my ambition was met with distain.

I get it, I really do. Why would someone in my position, having studied for many years and with a good career path ahead of me, jeopardise all of that to enter an industry lacking in credibility?

Along with a number of other like-minded professional investigators, I want regulation of the industry and to gain credibility for an industry that should be truly valued. After all, who else can provide a skill-set to insurance companies to reduce premiums by identifying fraud? Who do companies turn to when they have an internal fraud issue and the police will not help? How do solicitors obtain the 'smoking gun' that seals a case for their client?

Charlatan operators

In 2013, the home secretary announced the government's intention for the Secret Industry Authority to regulate private investigation activities, yet such regulation remains a long way off, and there has been little movement since.

Such regulation could, and should, include compulsory registration and training that can be monitored, as well as penalties that can be imposed upon those failing to adhere to regulation. Such regulation should match the strict requirements of the SRA's Code of Conduct, which again, while not perfect, goes a long way in reducing poor standards of service within the legal sector.

Regulation won't solve all of the industry's issues but it will at least help to reduce the number of 'charlatans' currently in operation and give them a benchmark to work from for those that remain. The Association of British Investigators is pushing for regulation; it already operates its own code of conduct to which its members voluntarily submit.

In the absence of regulation, I recommend solicitors wishing to instruct a private investigator check whether they:

  • Are registered with the Information Commissioner's Office for data protection purposes;

  • Are voluntary members of any industry bodies;

  • Have obtained any relevant qualifications (such as the Edexecel or IQ investigators awards); and

  • Possess the legal and investigative knowledge required for your work.

In addition, reputable investigators should be able to provide a range of testimonials, together with details of their professional indemnity and public liability insurance, as well as evidence of their experience in the respective field.

You have worked extremely hard to get where you are and will recognise that a referral in a niche area, where specialist knowledge is required, can help to further your own experience and provide another facet to your service for the client. Indeed, the strengthening of your professional relationships through the ability to offer a multi-faceted service should not be underestimated.

You will be relieved to know that despite a lack of regulation, there are many professional investigators out there who have worked equally as hard in their own careers and hold themselves to the same high standards as you. You just need to investigate their credentials.

Edward Whittingham is the managing director of WHITTINGHAM, a company specialising in investigation services @WhittinghamLtd