SRA to investigate role of lawyers in phone-hacking scandal

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has launched an investigation into the role of solicitors in events surrounding the News of the World (NoW) phone-hacking crisis.

The regulator confirmed today (22 July) that it will investigate lawyers’ roles in the scandal, including the concerns of Labour MP Tom Watson who called for the SRA to investigate News International’s former legal adviser Harbottle & Lewis.

Harbottle has come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks after News Corporation chief Rupert Murdoch accused the firm of making “a major mistake” in its review of hundreds of emails from senior staff at now-defunct Sunday tabloid NoW.

The investigation saw Harbottle’s former managing partner, Lawrence Abramson, confirm to News International director of legal affairs, Jon Chapman, in 2007 that it had not found anything in the emails to suggest that phone-hacking went further than former NoW royal editor Clive Goodman, who was jailed in 2007, or was known about by management such as Andy Coulson. News International subsequently concluded as a result of its internal investigation that Goodman acted alone.

Confirming its review SRA chief executive Antony Townsend said: “On the basis of our preliminary review of the material in the public domain, we have decided to instigate a formal investigation. The first step in this investigation is to obtain the evidence necessary to ensure a thorough investigation, 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.

“We will pursue our investigation vigorously and thoroughly, but emphasise that our inquiries are at an early stage, and that no conclusions have been reached about whether there may have been any impropriety by any solicitor.”

Harbottle was granted permission to discuss its controversial role in the scandal earlier this week after News International agreed to free it from client confidentiality obligations.

News of the SRA’s investigation came as the fallout from the scandal continued to spread. Libel specialist Carter-Ruck confirmed today that it has been instructed to advise assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police John Yates who has issued libel proceedings against the London Evening Standard, over aspects of its reporting of his conduct in the phone-hacking investigation. Media litigation lawyer Luke Staiano is leading for Yates, who announced that he was quitting earlier this week (18 July).

Meanwhile, News Corp has appointed its deputy GC Janet Nova as interim legal chief following the departure of former GC Lawrence Jacobs last month.