Former News International lawyers to face SDT hearing

Two former News International (NI) lawyers including a former Harbottle & Lewis partner and the company’s former director of legal affairs will face the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal over alleged cover-ups in the phone hacking scandal.

Former Harbottle & Lewis partner Lawrence Abramson, who moved to Keystone Law this year, and in-house lawyer Jon Chapman have both been referred to the regulator over emails they allegedly saw which proved widepread criminality at the paper (12 July 2011).

Harbottles was instructed in 2007 to help with the investigation into phone hacking at the News of the World after the paper’s former royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glen Mulcaire were prosecuted for hacking royal aides’ phones.

Harbottles claimed to have found no evidence of widespread phone hacking in its email search. However emails sent to the firm were later reviewed by criminal firm Hickman & Rose in the NI investigation. According to reports by the Guardian and the BBC, Abramson had received emails which indicated that payments were being made to police in return for information as well as showing that phone hacking went beyond just one reporter.

Rupert Murdoch, then the chairman and CEO of NI parent News Corporation, accused the firm of having made a “major mistake” in underestimating the scope of the scandal. But it was cleared by a report from the House of Commons Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee in 2012 (1 May 2012).

Murdoch had claimed Abramson was instructed to “find out what the hell was going on” and that a letter to Chapman was a “pillar” on which the media company based its claims that Goodman was acting alone.

But the committee report found that Chapman and NI group HR director Daniel Cloke gave Harbottles a “narrowly drawn” remit. In a letter sent to the committee, the firm argued it was only tasked to look into Goodman’s activity (16 August 2011).

Harbottles wrote: “There was absolutely no question of the firm being asked to provide News International with a clean bill of health which it could deploy years later in wholly different contexts for wholly different purposes.”

The firm also said it would have been unable to report any findings of illegality to the police due to legal professional privilege rules, and would have refused any wider instruction to look at phone-hacking allegations as it is not a specialist criminal practice.

The lawyers have been under investigation by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) for the past three years after Labour MP Tom Watson made a formal complaint against them in 2011. Watson’s complaint, that the lawyers should have referred evidence of crimniality to the police, was not valid because there is no such duty. They could still face a strike off over allegedly covering up the scale of hacking from their clients.

According to the Guardian, Abramson’s defence is that, while he did receive the vital emails, they were given an erroneous subject heading by a temporary secretary and he deleted them without examining their contents. 

An SRA spokesperson said: “A case brought by the SRA against Lawrence Abramson and Jonathan Chapman was listed before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal last week but was adjourned. It will be heard again in October. 

“In view of other proceedings the SRA has not yet published the nature of the allegations which Mr Abramson and Mr Chapman face.”

Chapman has instructed Saunders Law partner James Saunders with Doughty Street Chambers’ Joel Bennathan QC as lead counsel. Corker Binning partner Peter Binning is instructing Matrix Chambers’ Matthew Ryder QC for Abramson.