‘Highly political’: Law firm that accused UK troops of Iraqi prisoner abuses under fire

The Chairman of the Al-Sweady Public Inquiry, Thayne Forbes. © Paul Hackett
Law firm Leigh Day has been referred to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) over complaints regarding its handling of legal challenges launched by hundreds of Iraqi detainees against Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MoD).

The allegations against the prominent firm relate to the findings of the Al-Sweady inquiry, which was set up to investigate whether British soldiers murdered and tortured Iraqi prisoners in 2004.

The decision of Britain’s Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to investigate Leigh Day followed criticisms by the MoD during and after the five-year inquiry. However, the firm has defended its integrity, saying the context of the MoD’s complaints to the SRA is “highly political.”

Leigh Day says the decision to refer it to the SDT is premature because it has not been afforded a proper opportunity to respond to allegations leveled against it.

The MoD’s condemnation of Leigh Day was largely based on the firm's failure to hand over an Arabic document and its handwritten translation in the early phase of the Al-Sweady inquiry.

The document, which became known as “the OMS detainee list”, cataloged nine Iraqi detainees who had been taken into custody by UK armed forces in the aftermath of the Battle of Danny Boy. The fierce exchange of fire between British forces and Iraqi insurgents occurred close to the city of Amarah in southern Iraq in 2004. The inquiry said the list identified these men as members of the Mahdi Army.

The insurgency group rose to global prominence in April 2004 after it headed the Shia community’s first major armed confrontation against US-led forces in Iraq. At its most powerful, it reportedly influenced Iraq’s local government and police force.

Leigh Day admits the detainee list was a significant document, as it contradicted what the Iraqi prisoners had told the inquiry and the firm itself. While the detainees said they were innocent farmers who had been captured by the British Army, the document revealed they were in fact combatants.

The law firm says it failed to realize the significance of the list until the inquiry had instructed it to check if it had any information that was relevant to the probe. Following a review of its files, Leigh Day shredded the handwritten translation of the document. However, the list's contents survived in other forms and were given to the inquiry.

Leigh Day maintains it received the document from a British reporter, who was stationed in Iraq. The firm says it told the journalist to show the list to Britain’s Royal Military Police (RMP) and believes the information was later given to the MoD.

“We understand from the journalist that he did indeed go and meet with the RMP twice with material in his possession for them to copy,” the firm said.

“The question therefore arises as to whether the MoD itself has had the OMS detainee list since 2004.”

Leigh Day has also been accused of acting inappropriately by organizing a press conference focusing on the Iraqi detainees’ claims and taking part in an outlawed referral fee agreement. It flatly denies both allegations.

Iraqi detainees central to the Al-Sweady inquiry were represented by UK law firm Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) as well Leigh Day. Although PIL was investigated by the SRA, it was not referred to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT). 

The Al-Sweady inquiry concluded that British forces had violated international law by blindfolding Iraqi prisoners and depriving them of sleep and food. However, it rejected claims made by detainees that British soldiers had killed Iraqi insurgents and mutilated their corpses after the Battle of Danny Boy.

The SRA’s chief executive told the Guardian the allegations against Leigh Day are serious and “there is a clear public interest in resolving this matter as quickly as possible.”

“It is now for the tribunal to decide to hear the allegations and decide what course of action to take,” it added.

The SDT is currently considering the allegations made against Leigh Day. It could potentially scrap the legal challenge if it decides the claims are unsubstantiated.

Leigh Day has brought numerous successful claims for compensation against Britain’s MoD concerning the actions of the British Army in Iraq. These cases relate specifically to the death, torture and abuse of Iraqis.

The law firm has also brought lawsuits against Shell, BP, Anglo American and Unilever and the Japanese government.