Regulator says there is an investigation under way into Allen & Overy, the firm that drafted the document
Philip Davies MP submitted the chief executive of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to intense questioning this morning, about what Davies saw as the lack of action taken by the regulator against magic circle law firm Allen & Overy (A&O).
The firm and its employment partner, Mark Mansell, were advisers to Miramax at the time that the company, founded by Harvey Weinstein, entered into a highly-criticised non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with Zelda Perkins, Weinstein’s former assistant in London.
Davies grilled the SRA’s Paul Philip about the fact that the SRA had on the one hand issued a warning notice to the profession about NDAs — which it had in March 2018 — and yet at the same time appeared not to have taken action against the firm for drafting Perkins’ NDA that included provisions which, so drafted, “could amount to professional misconduct,” Davies said.
Philip confirmed that the regulator does have “an open investigation” into the matter.
The committee also criticised the SRA for not obtaining a copy of the NDA itself when the matter was first reported to it in November 2017. The committee heard that the SRA had met with A&O on 28 November 2017 but had not at that point in time taken any further action pending “further information coming to light”. But nor had the SRA seen a copy of the NDA itself, the committee heard.
Philip conceded that the SRA “should have asked for it [the NDA]” at the time.
Davies concluded that the whole episode “leaves a taste in the mouth that the SRA and its relationship with solicitors is like that of a cosy, old boys’ network, scratching each other’s backs and not taking anything seriously”. He asked Philip: “Are you not embarrassed about this?”
Philip denied this and defended the SRA’s record in investigating and pursuing solicitors who cross the line:
“The fact is that we receive about 12,000 complaints each year, we have taken action in relation to about 1,000 of these, and about 200-300 of those are prosecuted before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.”
Davies pressed him further: “Maybe it is a cosy organisation for big solicitor firms?”
Philip, again, defended the SRA’s record in relation to the larger firms, arguing that the regulator has taken “a number of significant pieces of action against big solicitor firms in the past three years”.
The NDA, signed by Perkins in 1998 following an allegation of sexual harassment against Weinstein, has been heavily criticised for its heavy-handedness and, potentially, “perverting the course of justice” as it attempted to bar Perkins from reporting her allegations to the police and even putting restrictions on her ability to discuss her situation with a medical practitioner.
The Women and Equalities Committee set up an inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace in light of the Weinstein scandal, looking into how widespread sexual harassment is, and what the government and employers should be doing to improve the situation.
During the inquiry, the committee has focused particular attention on the use of NDAs by employers in relation to ex-employees, and the role of lawyers in drafting them.