UK ethics institute sets up taskforce examining legal profession’s work for oligarchs and kleptocrats

City law firms are facing scrutiny for their relationships with such individuals in non-criminal matters

Taskforce will examine reputational and ethical risks of serving such clients in commercial matters Shutterstock

The Institute of Business Ethics has set up a taskforce looking at how UK law firms have worked with ultra-high-net-worth individuals such as overseas oligarchs and those alleged to be kleptocrats.

Led by Guy Beringer KC (Hon), the former senior partner of Magic Circle law firm Allen & Overy, it aims to examine the reputational and ethical risks of servicing such clients while balancing their right to representation alongside professional norms and values, and international obligations such as those set out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Beringer said lawyers are increasingly being judged ethically over the clients they are acting for and the type of work performed. While there are established principles in criminal law for the right to representation, in commercial matters, no such principle has been established.

He added: “The long-term interests of the profession and the reputation of the City of London would be well served by greater clarity and consensus on the ethical principles which should apply in civil matters.”

Membership of the taskforce spans those with City law firm backgrounds; the commercial Bar; academics; anti-corruption campaigners; those with connections to UK legal bodies such as the Law Society of England and Wales; the International Bar Association; and regulators, as well as EU lobbyists like the CCBE, which represents European bar associations.  

The taskforce has been created in the wake of UK and US law firms exiting the Russian market following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, alongside concerns by Western governments over the role lawyers play as gatekeepers for potential corruption, something vigorously denied by bodies like the Law Society.

Others, like the Bar Council, have upheld their core principles, such as the right to representation, access to justice and the principle of not associating the lawyer with the client – the so-called ‘cab rank’ rule.

However, each of those taking part will be doing so in a personal capacity only, while this title understands they will not be adopting any preconceived positions or be seen to do so before looking at the evidence and talking through the issues. The taskforce will report in a year, sharing recommendations with regulators, like the Solicitors Regulation Authority, parliamentarians and other stakeholders.

Dr Ian Peters MBE, director of the IBE, noted examples of oligarch-based instructions in litigation and transactional mandates, saying: “Practitioners are walking a tightrope between professional obligations to provide representation and commercial considerations on one side, and the ethics of representing such individuals and what that means for public perceptions of their firms on the other.”

Calling it a “challenging and complex issue”, he said the taskforce would “provide guidance and recommendations that will support the global reputation of the UK’s legal sector”.

Professor Robert Barrington, the taskforce’s deputy chair, said both civil society representatives and senior lawyers had “a common interest in working out how to reconcile the business needs of law firms with the duties of lawyers to act in the public interest, and the rights of victims in faraway countries – which are easily overlooked when the money and transactions come to London”.

Professor Richard Moorhead of Exeter University said: “This is an excellent group seized of an important brief. I think the question of how one acts is more interesting than who one can act for – a debate littered with hyperbole and hypocrisy.”

He added: “Be it the Post Office Scandal, or High Court judges highlighting excesses in civil litigation more generally, SLAPPs, or the abuse of NDAs, larger firms have a lot of soul searching to do on the question of are they independent and professional enough when acting for their clients.”

The taskforce members include Beringer; Barrington, who is a professor at the Centre for the Study of Corruption; Michael Bennett, former partner and general counsel at Linklaters; and Sara Carnegie, legal director at the International Bar Association.

Other members include Jonathan Goldsmith, former secretary-general of the CCBE and chair of the Law Society’s policy and regulatory affairs committee; former MP Duncan Hames, policy director of Transparency International UK; Susan Hawley, executive director at the Spotlight on Corruption; Professor Stephen Mayson, Centre for Ethics and Law at University College London; and Julie Norris, a partner at Kingsley Napley, whose former senior partner was appointed as Director of Public Prosecutions last month.

Patricia Robertson KC, from commercial set Fountain Court Chambers, is the sole barrister and a former vice chair of the Bar Standards Board. City representation includes Sarah de Gay, Master of the City of London Solicitors’ Company and incoming president of the City of London Law Society, who is also a former general counsel at Slaughter and May; alongside Jeff Twentyman, chair of sustainability and responsible business at Slaughters

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