04674-18 Leigh Day v The Sun

Decision: Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

Decision of the Complaints Committee 04674-18 Leigh Day v The Sun

Summary of Complaint

1. Leigh Day complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined, “War Slur Appeal”, published on 18 July 2018.

2. The article reported that the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) had launched an appeal to overturn the decision by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) to “clear legal firm Leigh Day of slurring Brit troops.” It reported that the firm had “accused soldiers of torturing and murdering Iraqi detainees”, but that an £31 million inquiry in 2014 had found that the claims were “deliberate lies”. It also stated that “Leigh Day has always denied wrongdoing.”

3. The article was also published online with the headline “War slurs Appeal launched to overturn decision to clear legal firm Leigh Day of slurring Brit troops”. It included a number of images. The caption under one image stated “A £31 million inquiry in 2014 found the claims made by Leigh Day in 2014 were ‘deliberate lies’”. Apart from this, the article was substantially the same as the article that appeared in print.

4. The complainant said that the article had suggested that the 2014 Public Inquiry had found that the law firm had told “deliberate lies”. It said that this was inaccurate, as the Public Inquiry had found that the claims of murder and torture made by Iraqi civilians were fraudulent, but had not made any findings on the actions of the firm.

5. Further, the complainant said that the article had mischaracterised the nature of the SRA’s grounds for appeal. It said that the SDT had dismissed all the charges made against the firm and its solicitors in 2017. However, a number of the SDT’s findings were being appealed by the SRA.  It said that it was inaccurate for the article to report that the firm had been accused of “slurring” British troops. It said that all allegations of torture and murder, referred to in the article, were claims made by its clients, not the firm itself.

6. It also said that it was inaccurate to refer to the SRA’s allegation being made against the firm as a whole. While it accepted that one of the SRA allegations at appeal was that on one occasion, solicitors had “personally endorsed” claims made by their clients, this was only being appealed in relation to one individual. The allegation was not made against the firm as a whole, and the complainant said that conflating the alleged actions of one solicitor with the firm as a whole was inaccurate and damaging to its reputation.

7. The newspaper did not accept that it had breached the Code. It said that the 2014 inquiry had found that “all the most serious allegations, made against the British soldiers” were “the product of deliberate lies.” It said that the SRA alleged solicitors at the firm had adopted these claims as their own, and as such it was not inaccurate to report that the firm’s statements had been found to be “deliberate lies”.

8. It also said that the allegations made by the SRA related specifically to Leigh Day and three of its solicitors; not claims made by its clients. It provided the list of the initial SRA allegations and the grounds of appeal. The newspaper referred to the first allegation made by the SRA and which was also subsequently appealed, which stated that, “At a press conference on 22 February 2008 the First Respondent made and personally endorsed… allegations that the British Army had unlawfully killed, tortured and mistreated Iraqi civilians… in circumstances where it was improper to do so and thereby in breached Rules 1.02, 1.03, and 1.06 of the Solicitors Code of Conduct (“CoC)” 2007.” It also provided the summary of opening submissions by the SRA at the original tribunal in 2017, which it said it had relied on. This alleged that, “Over a period of more than 7 years, [two named solicitors] and Leigh Day made and maintained allegations that soldiers in the British Army had murdered, tortured and mutilated innocent Iraqi civilians. The allegations were false, and should never have been advanced in public.” This statement also said that “The Inquiry established that the most serious allegations, the murder and torture of innocent Iraqi civilians were false: they should never have been advanced and endorsed in public by solicitors.”

9. The newspaper said that the first respondent in the allegations and subsequent appeal was a co-founder and partner at the firm. It said that he was acting in his professional capacity at the press conference, as a representative of the firm. It said that readers would be aware that a law firm was made up of the humans associated with it, and in the circumstances where this individual was one of the most senior solicitors at the firm, and indeed was a founding partner, it was not inaccurate to refer to the claims as being made by the firm in general.

Relevant Code Provisions

10. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.

Findings of the Committee

11. The article reported that the firm had “accused soldiers of torturing and murdering Iraqi detainees…”and that “a £31million inquiry in 2014 found the claims were “deliberate lies”, a reference to the Al-Sweady Inquiry. The complainant was the only source of alleged wrongdoing referred to in the article. The clear implication was that the complainant had been found by the Inquiry to have engaged in “deliberate lies”. The online article had gone further and reported that “A £31million inquiry in 2014 found the claims made by Leigh Day in 2014 were ‘deliberate lies’”. The newspaper had failed to take care over the accuracy of the report of the findings of the Inquiry in breach of Clause 1(i).

12. The article had given the misleading impression that the Inquiry had found that the complainant had been knowingly dishonest. This was a serious and potentially damaging misleading impression that related directly to the professional conduct of the firm. This required correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii). The newspaper had failed to correct the misleading impression created by the article, and was therefore in breach of Clause 1 (ii).

13. The remainder of the complaint related to alleged inaccuracies concerning the SRA proceedings. The Committee noted that the respondent to the one, specific allegation relied upon as the basis for the article was an individual solicitor at the firm. However, the use of the firm’s name in the article was a shorthand. Law firms are made up of individual solicitors who make claims or speak in court on the firm’s behalf. In this instance, the respondent was not just a lawyer at the firm, but a senior, founding partner, who gave his name to the firm. Referring to the firm, rather than an individual solicitor, particularly in circumstances where the individual was a partner, and namesake of the firm, was not misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

14. The Committee noted that one of the SRA allegations on appeal was that claims of torture and murder made by the complainant’s clients, had been personally endorsed by a solicitor at a press conference.  The SRA’s allegation was that the respondent had gone beyond simply repeating these serious claims of misconduct  made by his clients, but had instead “personally endorsed” these allegations allegedly in breach of his professional obligations. The newspaper was entitled to characterise this as “slurring” of British troops. There was no failure to take care in this characterisation of the SRA’s allegations, and no inaccuracy requiring correction. There was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

15. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

16. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

17. The newspaper had published a significantly misleading statement in print and online, and a further significant inaccuracy in an online photo caption. The article gave the impression that serious allegations of deliberate dishonesty against the firm had been upheld by a high-profile, public inquiry. The newspaper had not offered to publish a correction. Therefore, given the serious nature of the claims and the lack of any offer of remedy, the appropriate remedy was the publication of an upheld adjudication.

18. The Committee considered the placement, the print article had been published on page five. The Committee considered that due prominence required that the adjudication should be published on page 5 or further forward. The headline to the adjudication should make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, give the title of the newspaper and refer to the subject matter of the complaint. The headline must be agreed with IPSO in advance.

19. The adjudication should also be published online on the newspaper’s website. A link to the full adjudication should appear on the top half of the homepage for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way. The terms of the adjudications are as follows:

Print adjudication:

Leigh Day complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined, “War Slur Appeal”, published on 18 July 2018.

The article reported that Leigh Day had “accused soldiers of torturing and murdering Iraqi detainees”, but that an £31 million inquiry in 2014 had found that these claims were “deliberate lies”.

The complainant said that the article suggested that the 2014 Al-Sweady Inquiry had found that the law firm had told “deliberate lies”, when in fact the Inquiry had not made any findings about the firm.

The newspaper did not accept that the article was inaccurate. It said that the Inquiry had found that the claims of torture and murder by British troops in Iraq were untrue. Lawyers of the firm were accused of personally endorsing these claims.

The Committee found that the article had not made clear that “the claims” the Inquiry had found to be “deliberate lies” had been made by Iraqi detainees, and that its findings, therefore, related to the conduct of these individuals only. The article had given the misleading impression that the Inquiry had found that the complainant had been knowingly dishonest. This was a serious and potentially damaging allegation which required correction.

Online adjudication:

Leigh Day complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined, “War Slur Appeal”, published on 18 July 2018.

The article reported that Leigh Day had “accused soldiers of torturing and murdering Iraqi detainees”, but that an £31 million inquiry in 2014 had found that these claims were “deliberate lies”. A photo caption stated “A £31 million inquiry in 2014 found the claims made by Leigh Day in 2014 were ‘deliberate lies’”.

The complainant said that the article suggested that the 2014 Al-Sweady Inquiry had found that the law firm had told “deliberate lies”, when in fact the Inquiry had not made any findings about the firm.

The newspaper did not accept that the article was inaccurate. It said that the Inquiry had found that the claims of torture and murder by British troops in Iraq were untrue. Lawyers of the firm were accused of personally endorsing these claims.

The Committee found that the article had not made clear that “the claims” the Inquiry had found to be “deliberate lies” had been made by Iraqi detainees, and that its findings, therefore, related to the conduct of these individuals only. The article had given the misleading impression that the Inquiry had found that the complainant had been knowingly dishonest. This misleading impression was reinforced by the inaccurate photo caption that appeared in the article. This was a serious and potentially damaging allegation which required correction.

Date complaint received: 20/07/2018

Date complaint concluded: 18/02/2019  

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