Plans to investigate the conduct of legal professionals during the News of the World phone-hacking saga have been announced by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) – the body chosen to oversee new-style legal services firms set to emerge later this year. The organisation announced its aims in response to a letter by Tom Watson MP – a prominent member of the Parliamentary Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, which has played a key role in efforts to find out the truth behind the controversy. The probe will be seen within the legal sector as a crucial test of the SRA’s regulatory powers, as it prepares to license the first wave of providers created with alternative business structures (ABSs).
Widespread media coverage of the phone-hacking saga – including television coverage of numerous testimonies delivered to MPs in committee hearings – has ensured there is no shortage of leads to pursue. ‘On the basis of our preliminary review of the public-domain material,’ said SRA chief executive Antony Townsend, ‘we have decided to instigate a formal investigation. The first step in this investigation is to obtain the evidence necessary to ensure a thorough probe, using the powers we have under the Solicitors Act 1974. We have set that in hand today. Further decisions will depend upon the review of that evidence and any further inquiries we need to make.’
Despite the pressures associated with the high-profile and fast-moving story, the SRA is determined to remain open minded. ‘We shall pursue our investigation vigorously,’ Townsend added, ‘but emphasise that our enquiries are at an early stage, and that no conclusions have been reached about whether there may have been any impropriety by any solicitor.’
While the saga started life as a series of reports about celebrities who alleged that the News of the World had accessed their voicemails, it has evolved dramatically over the past few weeks. Fresh complaints emerged alleging that the newspaper had accessed phone messages of the deceased and their bereaved families, and the ensuing media outcry forced the title to close.
Since then, even legal professionals have alleged that their phones have been hacked by journalists. Commenting on the claims, Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson said: ‘Hacking into solicitors’ phones would be very serious indeed, and we urge the police to carry out a full investigation. In any event, it is a shocking breach of the privacy of both solicitors and their clients. The extent of the phone hacking scandal has already shown a blatant disregard for the privacy of individuals, and the Law Society urges the police to investigate these claims with the utmost vigour.’
For NewLegal Review’s coverage of the phone-hacking saga’s e-discovery implications, click here
Following copious media coverage of illegal phone hacking, the approved ABS regulator steps in to probe solicitors’ actions in the saga