Lawyers clash over plans for top firms to help police with cybercrime investigations

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“Public-private partnership” throws up doubt over solicitors’ motives


Radical plans to involve big name law firms in police investigations have split the legal profession this week, with some questioning whether lawyers can resist the draw of big money profits.

Championed by the City of London police, the new pilot project will mean private law firms — notably Mishcon de Reya — will be hired by law enforcement to pursue cyber criminals. Police officers will tip off law firms with the suspect’s details, and then it’s over to the solicitors to use the civil courts to pursue their assets.

Speaking to The Guardian, Chris Greany — head of economic crime at the City of London police — explained why he thinks this is a good idea:

Civil recovery allows us to get hold of a criminal’s money sooner, and repay back victims sooner.

He continued:

Who benefits from this? The victim will benefit, because they will get their money back. We’ll benefit because the criminal will be skint and they will be brought back down to having nothing again, and have to get about their normal lives, and they won’t have status in the community.

Others, however, are not so sold on the idea.

The controversy of the project hinges on its profit-making potential, with the profit going to the lawyers of course. Civil proceedings against the suspect can be initiated without a criminal conviction and maybe even a criminal charge, and a successful claim means a big payout for the legal team.

Some commentators — drawing on the greedy lawyer stereotype — have described this new development as a “bonanza for lawyers”. One tweeter said it’s “deeply uncomfortable”; another foresaw it would “backfire spectacularly”.

So where do the lawyers stand? Well, on both sides of the fence.

Robert Wynn Jones, a partner at Mishcon de Reya, described the scheme as “novel and pragmatic”, and said it would strengthen the deterrent to criminals. And, for what it’s worth, legal journalist Joshua Rozenberg QC thinks it’s a “neat move”.

However, Bindmans lawyer Katie Wheatley isn’t so optimistic. She commented:

We’ve seen privatisation in this context in other ways, for example prison privatisation. We all know how badly that’s gone wrong… [H]aving possibly life savings, large assets stripped from you is a life-changing event. Whereas for the companies that the role was subcontracted to, it would just be a job.

Moulding law firms and the state into — in Greany’s words — a “public-private partnership” is certainly an interesting concept, but elsewhere in the big wide world of legal affairs is a stark reminder of what can happen when the two worlds clash.

It has been reported this morning that law firm Public Interest Lawyers is going to be closed down, just weeks after the Legal Aid Agency — part of the Ministry of Justice — withdrew its contract.

The Birmingham-based law firm, headed by Phil Shiner, has been on the receiving end of months of right wing tabloid hate after it was accused of hounding British servicemen and women for financial gain. Now, the firm is expected to close by the end of this month.