The Solicitors Regulation Authority has declined to disclose documents relating to Fieldfisher's appointment to an SRA panel run by one of the firm's former partners.
In July 2017 the regulator awarded Fieldfisher a place on its General Counsel Panel. Given the firm's strong regulatory reputation, the appointment was not in itself controversial. However, Juliet Oliver, the SRA's GC, is an ex-Fieldfisher lawyer who worked in Fieldfisher's regulatory practice under Matthew Lohn. Lohn, who is Fieldfisher's Senior Partner, led the firm's bid for the SRA job.
Unusually, at the time of Fieldfisher's bid, the SRA was investigating Lohn over his actions while chair of the British Horseracing Authority's disciplinary panel. Lohn had provided the BHA with paid legal advice which led to accusations of a conflict of interest. The SRA dropped its investigation into Lohn in February 2017 while Oliver, in her role as GC, was the Executive Director of Case Direction.
After the SRA and Fieldfisher stonewalled enquiries about the potential for favouritism, RollOnFiday requested documents relating to the bid and the investigation into Lohn. This was possible due to the SRA's adoption of an information release policy broadly equivalent to that enshrined in the Freedom of Information Act. After twice extending its deadline for providing a response, the SRA released just one document, a redacted copy of the SRA's invitation to tender, along with a four page letter explaining why nothing else could be disclosed.
Straight from the horse's mouth.
Jack Baraczewski, the SRA's Information Governance Officer, said nothing about Lohn could be released because "some of the information you have requested is the personal data of the individual in question and we cannot therefore disclose [it]".
"We agree that there is a public interest in disclosure around our investigations, as this promotes openness, transparency and accountability", he said. "However, we also find that there is a significant public interest in non-disclosure in this matter."
He said that Oliver was not a member of the panel considering her ex-boss's tender but, other than that, there was nothing the SRA could say about the firm's bid. "There is a public interest in demonstrating that tenders are conducted fairly and go through a thorough evaluation process", said Baraczewski. But, "this must be balanced against the prejudice that could be caused through the release of commercially sensitive material". As such, he said, "I am not able to provide you a copy of Field Fisher’s bid [sic]". RollOnFriday didn't ask for it. It did ask for related correspondence, in particular any emails between Lohn and Oliver, but the SRA's response did not address that request at all.
That is more than they usually provide in response to a FOI request!
This absolutely reeks. Even if there is in fact no impropriety (and that is a long, long way from having been established), it has the look of utter impropriety and corruption. For goodness' sake: this is the body charged with regulating the conduct of solicitors in England and Wales, and it has the appearance of some corrupt banana republic closed shop. The SRA needs to get its house in order fast, because at the moment it is bringing the entire profession into disrepute.
Surely if your general counsel came from a law firm the one law firm you would never buy services from is that firm if you are a regulator, even if they were the very best firm in the UK. It just looks really bad.
Lydia, why do you keep using the word "firm"? Is something on your mind that you are thinking long and hard about?
Not sure I agree Lydia. I don’t want public bodies/regulators unable to use the best lawyers, whether that’s the person they think best to hire but comes from a good firm, or the good firm (and fnarr noted, Gobblepig) itself. Otherwise we’ll be left with regulators who can’t be trusted to tie their own shoelaces being advised by people who thought, “Hey, regulatory stuff - how hard can it be?”
HOWEVER, it should be absolutely transparent that the decision is not in any way improper, and that’s where the SRA have fallen down here.
This STINKS. But RollonFriday has only written half the story. Nepotism is rife at the SRA. Juliet Oliver was appointed to her role as SRA GC by SRA Chief Exec Paul Phillip, who was.......her former boss from years at the GMC. If RoF really wants to look into this, make a request for the SRA to disclose how many of 'his' people Paul Phillip has appointed to senior roles at the SRA since he became Chief Exec.
The SRA paid Progress (affiliated with the right in the Labour Party) £5,000 before the 2017 General Election. This is our money which was used for political campaigning - the SRA stink.
Anon 7 June 13:24 - that is so beside the point. Procedural propriety and transparency is more important - it's a regulator whose job is policing, um, procedural propriety. "Outcomes" is just another word for correct procedure.