Having been plagued by allegations of cover-ups in the high profile phone hacking scandal, former News International adviser Lawrence Abramson has been found in breach of the Solicitors Practice rules by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) on one out of three accounts, while all allegations against the newspaper group’s former legal director Jonathan Chapman have been dismissed.
The duo faced a hearing last year following allegations regarding their handling of the phone hacking investigation that led to the closure of The News of the World and the launch of the Leveson inquiry.
Heard from the 8 and 10 October and 4 December before a three-person tribunal and confidential until today (22 July), the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which puts around 200 cases a year to the SDT, referred the case after an investigation into the pair that began in 2011.
Abramson, at the time managing partner at Harbottle & Lewis, was instructed by Chapman to undertake an external review in 2007 following the jail sentence handed to former royal editor Clive Goodman for intercepting mobile phone messages. Then chairman of News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch, claimed in July 2011 that the company’s law firm had failed to highlight wider problems linked to the investigation.
Allegations against Chapman included that he failed to identify and/or report to News International that material reviewed showed evidence of criminal activity; evidence that senior staff were aware of mobile phone interception; and that, during the course of instructing Abramson, he had sought to exercise excessive influence over the content and substance of the advice to be given. Abramson was then accused of failing to properly carry out the instruction.
Chapman denied the allegations made against him which the tribunal found not proved and therefore ordered they be dismissed with no order for costs.
In the judgment handed down by Andrew Spooner, a consultant at Wright Hassall, it said: ‘The tribunal found the closing submissions on behalf of the first respondent [Chapman] to be very persuasive. In particular, if there was some sort of conspiracy in the mind of the first respondent to cover up damaging or potentially damaging communications, why would the email instructions be phrased in such a way as to invite either the second respondent [Abramson], or a colleague from a high profile litigation law firm with extensive media experience to undertake a review?’
Abramson admitted and the tribunal found proved one allegation against him according to the Solicitors Practice Rules 1990 that he acted in such a way as to compromise or impair his proper standard of work, and ordered him to pay a fine of £20,000 and further pay a contribution towards costs worth £15,000. Two further allegations were found not proved by the tribunal and were dismissed.
A weighty legal line-up saw Fountain Court Chambers’ Timothy Dutton QC instructed by Capsticks partner Daniel Purcell for the SRA; while Doughty Street Chambers’ Joel Bennathan QC was instructed by Saunders Law managing director James Saunders for Chapman; Matrix Chambers’ Matthew Ryder QC was instructed by Corker Binning partner Stephanie Roe, who has since left the firm, for Abramson; and Andrew Hopper QC was instructed by Arnold & Porter for News UK.
The SDT in December last year suspended Alastair Brett, the former head of legal at The Times, for six months following allegations that he failed to act with integrity and knowingly allowed a court to be misled.