The campaign for this year's general election has been dirty, with allegations of sleaze, corruption and hypocrisy its most constant feature. And although most legal organisations have kept a low public profile over the past few weeks, the profession has not escaped totally unscathed.
In a public snipe at Tory MP Neil Hamilton, the anti-sleaze candidate Martin Bell recently commented: “We have the people, he has the lawyers. Judge that for yourselves.”
Richard Thomas is director of the public policy unit at City firm Clifford Chance. He says the unit was set up about five years ago to “give the firm and clients a better understanding of Westminster, Whitehall and Brussels, to identify opportunities, read between the lines, anticipate what is coming and help assert influence when it is helpful to do so.” He says the unit deals mainly with civil servants, not ministers or MPs, and does not retain any MPs.
For an example of the kind of work it does, look no further than the Finance Bill, which was published earlier this year. The public policy unit drafted a paper on clause 54, which would have been damaging to many Clifford Chance clients, and succeeded in getting the clause withdrawn.
Thomas, who prefers to steer clear of the word lobbying, believes that the recent political sleaze scandals could benefit lawyers. “There will always be a demand for this sort of activity, but people are increasingly nervous that they are doing it in a way which may be improper. We and other law firms can gain from that.”
Research carried out by the firm in December 1994 showed that clients welcomed the idea of lawyers lobbying on their behalf, because they saw them as technical experts with integrity and independence.
Solicitors, points out Thomas, are also regulated by the Law Society, and can be effective in Whitehall and Brussels because they combine technical knowledge with an understanding of the constitutional framework, good access to relevant information and an ability to analyse and think objectively.
He strongly denies the proposition that by involving themselves in the political process lawyers risk being tarred by the same brush as politicians.
“I draw an analogy with advocacy and litigation in which a lawyer, on behalf of his client, draws together all the evidence and arguments and tries to put across a point of view,” he says. “One has to uphold very important standards of integrity and professionalism.”
At present, Clifford Chance is one of a handful of firms to offer clients this type of service. But Thomas predicts this will soon change. “This is a tremendous opportunity for the whole of the legal community,” he said. “The question is whether or not the profession, which has not always been proactive, grasps that opportunity.”
Proactive or not, lawyers may soon find themselves more directly involved with political sleaze, if one proposal for dealing with the perceived lack of accountability for politicians is adopted. This would make bribery of an MP a criminal offence. At present MPs are accountable for their actions to the House of Commons but are immune from the laws regulating bribery in public bodies.
A Royal Commission on standards in public life recommended making the corruption, bribery or attempted bribery of an MP an offence as far back as 1976. Recent scandals, most notably the arms-to-Iraq and cash-for-questions debacles, have now pushed the issue into the foreground.
A Home Office paper published last December proposed changing the law to make bribery of an MP an offence, but also suggested allowing the House to step in and deal with a particular case itself if it wished. And earlier this month, John Major pledged to consider changing the existing law in order to close the loophole if the Conservatives were returned to power.
The problem with political sleaze, according to one lobbyist who covers mainly legal issues, is that it has not really been considered in a legal framework in the past. “There is legislation relating to corruption, but it has not been framed in a way that people find useful,” he says.
He agrees that lawyers are, and will continue to become, more involved in the debate. “There is scope for more legal advice for people in public life, particularly as the Nolan Committee is a permanent standing committee which will continue to look into these areas.”