Wednesday, May 27, 2009
From the Times of London:
Thousands of disciplinary rulings against lawyers accused of misconduct can be publicised after one of Britain's leading solicitors lost a battle in the Court of Appeal to keep his own case under wraps.
Lawyers for Michael Napier, former President of the Law Society, went to court to seek an injunction to stop Private Eye from publishing identifying details of a complaint against him. But on Tuesday the Court of Appeal backed an earlier ruling by Mr Justice Eady in the High Court and refused to grant the banning order.
The ruling also clears the way for thousands of other cases each year against solicitors and barristers to be publicised, as well as findings by the legal ombudsmen who act as a last “court” of appeal.
The ruling also raises a question mark over the publication of disciplinary findings by other professional bodies and other ombudsmen.
One lawyer said yesterday: “This will be a free-for-all for complainants. Anyone aggrieved with his or her lawyer will be able to publicise details, whether the complaint was upheld or not — and the public will think there's no smoke without fire.”
Mr Napier, senior partner of the law firm Irwin Mitchell and a member of a new arch regulator, the Legal Services Board, has been reprimanded and found guilty of acting in circumstances where there was “significant risk” of a conflict of interest.
The complainant, a barrister called Michael Ford, then referred the case to the legal ombudsman. It was looked at by the Scottish ombudsman because Mr Napier had held a prominent position in the Law Society. He concluded that the Law Society had failed to investigate the original complaint properly and said that the penalty imposed, the reprimand, should be reinvestigated to see whether some other penalty should be imposed. In January this year Private Eye obtained a copy of the ombudsman's report but Irwin Mitchell and Mr Napier sought an injunction to prevent him from being identified in any publication.
This week's robust ruling by the appeal judges means that decisions by adjudication panels can be published if the complainant wishes. The Solicitors Regulation Authority, the body that took over the job of disciplining solicitors from the Law Society, makes almost 2,500 adjucations a year.
Lord Justices Hughes, Toulson and Sullivan ruled that complainants did not owe a duty of confidentiality to their solicitors. Lord Justice Hughes rejected the argument from Mr Napier's lawyers that the disciplinary scheme would be unworkable or would “impair the integrity of the process” unless the adjudications by panels were confidential to themselves.
Mr Napier was not available for comment.
Mr Ford's complaint against Mr Napier relates to the barrister's suspension from the Hong Kong Bar Association over misuse of confidential client information. He appealed to the Privy Council and engaged Mr Napier, who acted free of charge and won the appeal. But five years later Mr Ford alleged a conflict of interest.
He claimed that the relationship of another branch of Irwin Mitchell with Esso was deterimental to him and beneficial to Exxon and its wholly owned subsidiaries, including Esso, which was in litigation with him.
Irwin Mitchell said: “We expect the decision will be a surprise and of concern to the legal profession and to other regulated professsions and businesses which might have thought information provided to their regulator would be treated as confidential, especially in the sensitive area of complaint investigation and processing.”
Thanks to John Van Bolt of Michigan for sending this information. (Mike Frisch)