The Solicitors’ Regulation Authority (SRA) is the regulatory body for solicitors (the profession of most lawyers) in England and Wales. It has recently updated its guidance to solicitors on Balancing Duties in Litigation, in light of the recent controversies over extreme non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).
While the guidance is directed primarily to litigators rather than transactional lawyers, and across all sectors rather than being focussed on IP, it is striking that several examples from the guidance are of direct relevance to those of us who advise on IP matters including transactions. Three areas in particular are worth noting:
- Predatory IP litigation
- Drafting aggressive and unenforceable terms in NDAs
- Taking advantage of unrepresented individuals
As the executive summary to the guidance document makes clear:
…although solicitors must advance their clients’ cases, they are not ’hired guns’ whose only duty is to that client. They also owe duties to the courts, third parties and to the public interest.
This is a welcome change of emphasis from the SRA, which in the past has seemed to downplay these duties in favour of an overriding obsession with the interests of “consumers”.
This blog article doesn’t seek to summarise the overall content of the guidance, but instead highlights some points that jumped out as particularly relevant to IP practitioners.
One of the examples of predatory litigation cited by the SRA is the action brought by ACS:Law against downloaders of porn. Letters were sent out to multiple parties, in each case alleging copyright infringement and demanding several hundred pounds to settle the case. Though the law firm is not named in the guidance, it is clear who the SRA has in mind as the guidance refers to “blackmail” and includes a footnote linking to the transcript of a House of Lords debate where this firm’s activities were discussed by name.
The guidance includes the following paragraphs:
Predatory litigation generally involves solicitors bringing large numbers of claims with limited investigation of their individual merits or of the underlying legal background. The idea is usually that the cost in time and money of proceedings, or the threat of public embarrassment, will lead to opponents settling cases that might have no real merit.
For example, a law firm might send letters of claim to large numbers of individuals alleging, on limited evidence, that they have breached the intellectual property of their client. The requested settlement is usually significantly lower than the potential cost of fighting the claim, which encourages people to settle the claim before it goes to court and without first seeking their own legal advice.
IP Draughts was challenged about the SRA’s effectiveness in this area, when he gave oral evidence to a House of Lords bill committee in relation to what became the Intellectual Property (Unjustified Threats) Act 2017. His off-the-cuff, unprepared response was that there will always be outliers who break the rules, and it was better to deal with them in a regulated environment than an unregulated environment. He acknowledged that the SRA was like an oil tanker, taking a long time to change direction, but it did eventually take action against ACL:Law and its principal, striking them off the roll of solicitors.
Now the SRA has gone further and provided specific guidance to solicitors about this type of behaviour. Most IP lawyers that IP Draughts’ knows wouldn’t dream of behaving like ACS:Law but there are outliers in any profession, and the guidance is welcome.
Unenforceable terms in NDAs
The Harvey Weinstein case involving a UK member of staff was the subject of much press comment, and lawyers from the English law firms involved were hauled before a Parliamentary committee to explain their actions. Some of the details of that case were, to IP Draughts’ mind, extraordinary, including that a party was not allowed to retain a copy of an NDA that they had signed.
The SRA guidance on this subject includes the following statements:
The role of solicitors in drafting NDAs in relation to allegations of harassment has received public and political attention.4 This attention will continue. There are legitimate uses for these agreements, but solicitors must make sure that they do not draw up clauses that go beyond what is necessary to settle the claim. They must not threaten consequences that cannot legally be enforced. In particular, solicitors must not seek to prevent anyone from reporting offences or co-operating with a criminal investigation and other legal processes, including influencing the evidence they give. They must also not prevent someone who has signed an NDA from keeping a copy of the agreement.
There have also been allegations of employers threatening to give a hostile reference or otherwise to penalise a victim if they do not agree to sign an NDA.5 Other victims have reported being given the impression by the solicitor that they would be imprisoned if they did not comply with the NDA.6 People that have experienced some form of harassment might be vulnerable, in part because of the harassment itself. Solicitors need to consider this when communicating with them and when drafting an NDA.
The document cross-refers to a more specific guidance document on NDAs from the SRA.
When dealing with a party that is not legally represented, a solicitor should not “take advantage”. The only situation where IP Draughts comes across this on a fairly regular basis is where a university client is negotiating an IP transaction with an individual such as an academic who is forming a spin-out company to exploit IP. Sometimes, the academic does not take their own legal advice on the terms they are being asked to agree to, and IP Draughts recommends recording in writing, eg in an email to that person, that (a) the law firm is acting for the university alone (if that is the case), (b) neither the law firm nor the university is providing legal advice to that person in a personal capacity, and (c) they should consider obtaining their own legal advice.
The SRA’s advice in this area includes the following comments:
In advancing a client’s interests, solicitors must be careful not to take unfair advantage of the opponent or other third parties such as witnesses. Special care is needed where the opponent is unrepresented or vulnerable. Solicitors will need to consider this duty in all cases, but particularly when faced with a party showing a simple lack of legal knowledge or obvious procedural misunderstandings.
There can be a fine line between proper defence of the client’s interest and taking unfair advantage of others, usually highlighted by any form of deceit or misinformation.
Indicative behaviour 11.7 in the Code of Conduct highlights that taking unfair advantage of an unrepresented party’s lack of legal knowledge shows a failure to comply with duties to others. Special care should be taken when corresponding with lay or vulnerable opponents not to take advantage or use language that might intimidate them.8 Regulatory breaches can arise from any oppressive or domineering tactics, regardless of whether misleading information is included. These tactics include:
- overbearing threats of claims or poor outcomes
- legalistic letters to minors or others who might be vulnerable
- threats of litigation where no legal claim arises
- claims of highly exaggerated adverse consequences.
From memory, this is not the only guidance that the SRA gives on dealing with unrepresented parties, but the above is focussed on the specifics of litigation.
The bottom line is that an English solicitor is not supposed to go out “all guns blazing” in pursuit of their client’s interests, if this would result in a breach of the solicitor’s other professional duties. Care is needed, particularly with vulnerable or unrepresented individuals. Although the SRA’s guidance is primarily concerned with litigation, it may also affect those of us who draft IP agreements and are regulated by the SRA. IP Draughts expects that the other regulators of UK IP professionals, including the Bar Council and IPReg, would follow a similar line to the SRA.
Some clients will be disappointed with this approach, and see it as “pulling your punches”. They may prefer the US approach where attorneys are expected to represent their clients in a “zealous” manner.