Top Labour lawyer fined over breach

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Geoffrey Bindman, the Labour Party's favourite lawyer and distinguished human rights campaigner, has been fined £12,000 for a serious breach of the solicitors' rule book.

Mr Bindman was prosecuted last week at a disciplinary tribunal over two charges of conflict of interest and one charge of "improperly passing on confidential information".

For a lawyer whose reputation was built on his high-profile client base, the lapses are highly embarrassing. A spokesman at the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors (OSS), which brought the prosecution, could not recall a more eminent lawyer taken to such a hearing.

Mr Bindman is something of a modern-day fixer in the mould of Lord Goodman whose legal skills were much used by the Labour governments of the 1960s and 70s. His recent clients read like an A-to-Z of New Labour.

Mr Bindman has acted vigorously for Keith Vaz, the former Foreign Office minister who quit after the election following an investigation into his business affairsby the parliamentary standards commissioner Elizabeth Filkin. Mr Bindman did much to try to protect Mr Vaz's beleaguered reputation.

Other prominent Labour politicians who have turned to him for help include Jack Straw, Jack Cunningham and Frank Dobson. Mr Bindman, chairman of the Society for Labour Lawyers, also acted for Amnesty International in its attempt to get Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, extradited and tried on human rights charges.

The charges faced by Mr Bindman related to two accusations of conflict of interest and a third of improperly sharing confidential information. He admitted all three charges and was fined a total of £12,000. Robin Lewis, another partner in his firm, Bindman and Partners, was fined £3,000 after admitting two charges of conflict of interest. They were both ordered to pay legal costs of £7,000.

Roger Field, who acted at the hearing for both men, quoted from a prepared statement: "Geoffrey Bindman and Robin Lewis regret the misjudgments which gave rise to these proceedings. They fully acknowledge the need to maintain the highest professional standards. Since the events in question, which occurred some years ago, the firm has taken appropriate measures to strengthen its relevant procedures."

Mr Field said the confidential information was passed on "inadvertently".

An OSS spokesman said it was "rather sad when you see a distinguished solicitor before a tribunal", and the charges were "up the scale a bit". A source called them "near the top end of seriousness".

The prosecution against Mr Bindman arose from complex circumstances relating to allegations of corruption and race discrimination at Hackney Council, London.

Bindman and Partners acted for Sam Yeboah, the council's former head of personnel, in successful libel actions brought against the BBC and Private Eye magazine. But in the early 1990s, the law firm had also acted for Bernard Crofton, Hackney's head of housing at the time, in a separate dispute he had with his previous employers at Ealing Council.

Mr Crofton's allegations of corruption at Hackney formed the basis of Mr Yeboah's successful libel action. When Mr Crofton found Mr Lewis was acting for Mr Yeboah, he sent a letter to Mr Bindman in 1995 asking for assurance that given the "potential conflict of interest" he would stop acting for Mr Yeboah.

Mr Bindman refused and Mr Crofton took his complaint to the OSS, which brought the prosecution last week. Mr Bindman was found to be in clear breach of rule 15 of the Guide to the Professional Conduct of Solicitors.

Last night, Mr Crofton, who isnow retired, told the Independent on Sundaythat he was pleased with the outcome: "The rule is absolute: if you have an existing client and there's a significant risk of a conflict of interest, you must not take on another client."