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Law firms with public affairs arms are gearing up for a battle with the lobbying industry body over the issue of confidentiality, and the dispute has turned acrimonious.
DLA Piper has referred the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC) to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) after the APPC tried to force government agencies to work exclusively with its members.
Public affairs lawyers are up in arms about the move, claiming the APPC is seeking to corner the lobbying market.
DLA Piper has accused the regulatory body of being anticompetitive. The law firm issued a strongly worded complaint last Friday (7 September), claiming that the APPC's stance would effectively debar non-members from carrying out public affairs work, which is unlawful under the Competition Act 1998.
The major barrier for law firms joining the association is the APPC's requirement to disclose the names of its clients, which some law firms claim could result in losing clients that prefer to remain anonymous.
DLA Piper has considerable support from the rest of the legal profession. Lovells administrative and public law partner Paul Dacam has endorsed the decision to put forward a competition complaint.
"Quite legitimately, clients, when instructing lawyers and other professionals, may not wish to disclose their identity as that may well affect how they're dealt with by the regulators or government," said Dacam. "It's rare that clients wish to be anonymous, but it does happen, and if there's a prerequisite to name them then we'll simply lose them as longstanding clients."
APPC secretary Mary Shearer said the association's aim of regulating the entire political lobbying industry will ensure transparency across the board.
Shearer said: "Some law firms declined to join the APPC as they claimed that Solicitors Regulation Authority rules prevent them from doing so due to our requirement that they disclose the names of their clients. The authority, however, said that there was no automatic bar to lawyers joining the APPC."
Shearer said that clients the association wants firms to disclose would only be those involved in political lobbying. As such, client lists from other practices, such as corporate, would not be affected.