2017-04-27 19:57:00
A UK law firm acting for Iraqis who alleged they were mistreated by the British military did not attempt to mislead a public inquiry into the affair, a professional misconduct hearing has been told. Patricia Robertson QC, defending Leigh Day, said the law firm’s failure to recognise the significance of an Iraqi document that identified its clients as militiamen rather than civilians was a “cock-up”, rather than a lack of integrity. Solicitors’ firm Leigh Day defends its record ahead of trial for alleged professional misconduct after accusations of ambulance-chasing by Ministry of Defence Robertson told the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal that the document – a personnel list from the Office of the Martyr al-Sadr (OMS), which revealed Leigh Day’s clients were Mahdi Army fighters rather than civilians – did not in any case disqualify them from having valid claims for mistreatment. Nor did the document’s discovery cause the inquiry into alleged military abuse in Iraq to be abandoned, she added. “No one is suggesting that the OMS list was deliberately overlooked … It’s fully accepted that the OMS list was significant. Not spotting its significance [at first] was a cock-up that’s much regretted but it does not amount in all of the circumstances to misconduct. “Lawyers do sometimes miss significant documents but it was not the nail that caused the kingdom to be lost,” Robertson told the hearing. “The al-Sweady inquiry [which investigated allegations that British troops had assaulted, tortured and murdered Iraqi detainees] continued for more than a year after the OMS list was disclosed. The inquiry was undoubtedly complex. [The OMS list] was one piece of the jigsaw … not a silver bullet. “ Errors of judgment,” Robertson added, “are not lack of integrity.” The Ministry of Defence had offered compensation to Leigh Day’s clients to settle their claim of mistreatment, the tribunal was told. “Crucially, as the MoD’s offer of settlement recognised, even if the detainees were disbelieved about [not] being combatants, that did not stop them having valid claims for detention or mistreatment.” She added: “The al-Sweady inquiry found there had been some mistreatment … It was never the position that [Leigh Day] believed the al-Sweady claims to be dishonest or untrue.” The case centres on the aftermath of the so-called Battle of Danny Boy near Basra in 2004, when British army patrols were ambushed by Mahdi Army fighters. Claims by the captured Iraqi fighters that they were tortured and some survivors killed were proved to be fictitious by the al-Sweady inquiry. The OMS list was eventually handed over in August 2013 after Leigh Day was asked by the al-Sweady inquiry to review all its related material. “The inquiry lasted for five years,” Robertson said. “Why did it last five years if it was patently obvious that there was nothing to [the claims]? “Some of the [Iraqi] families genuinely believed that [their relatives] had been tortured and murdered.” That belief had been reinforced, she added, by the fact there had been a “highly unusual order” by British officers to remove bodies from the site of the Iraqi ambush. “That created the suspicion that those removed had been alive,” Robertson said. In a reference to Leigh Day’s regret over aspects of the case, Robertson used words attributed to Queen Mary on hearing of the loss of the Calais in battle in 1558: she said Calais was “carved on her heart”. “[Lawyers] don’t always prove to be right about how cases turn out,” Robertson said. “Nor are we always [right] about the judgment we make about other human beings.” Robertson warned that if the tribunal came up with “the wrong answer” to the charges against Leigh Day, it would “have a chilling effect on the willingness of lawyers to act in difficult cases”. Leigh Day and three of its solicitors, Martyn Day, Sapna Malik and Anna Crowther, all deny misconduct.