April 7 2024

What should in-house General Counsels do when they become aware that their organisation – or senior people within it – are, or may be, behaving unlawfully?

Back in the USA

It is not a new question.

In 1991 the head of Salomon Brothers’ Government Trading Desk, Paul Mozer, deliberately breached the rules at 5 separate auctions of US Treasury bonds between December 1990 and May 1991, falsified trading records then lied to supervisors as US regulators started to ask questions. What made the firm’s behaviour worse was that, despite the GC, Donald Feuerstein, the Chair, John Gutfreund, and two other senior executives (John Meriwether and Thomas Strauss) being told of Mozer’s behaviour during the February auction in April 1991, despite them agreeing that his conduct should be reported to the US Treasury, they did nothing. It was only in August that the Treasury was informed and, even then, the firm failed to say that top executives had known for months but failed to act, a delay described as “inexplicable and inexcusable” by Salomon Brothers’ new Chair, Warren Buffet. 3 of those 4 executives had resigned by then but not the GC who had repeatedly told senior management that they must act but had failed to make any reports himself. Eventually, he too resigned.

The report into this matter – and the conduct of the GC – was one of the first things I read when joining Salomon’s Legal Department a few years later. It was made crystal clear that, when it came to legal issues, especially reporting to authorities, lawyers could not, should not satisfy themselves with telling others that something had to be done but had an obligation to ensure that it was done and, if necessary, by them. Lawyers were not just there to advise others. Sometimes they had to act too.

And now?

Some 30 years later that lesson still needs learning, judging by what we are learning from the never-ending revelations of the Post Office Inquiry and, lately, the release of numerous recordings, involving conversations between the independent external investigators, Second Sight, and the Post Office’s General Counsels, Susan Crichton and, later Chris Aujard. Much of the focus has been on what they show about Paula Vennells’ knowledge of Horizon’s failings and its consequences for subpostmasters, contrary to what she later claimed to a Parliamentary Select Committee.

Worse is what they show about the response of the Post Office’s General Counsel, their most senior lawyer and the person who should, if they understand their responsibilities properly, be ensuring the company complies with the law even if this adversely impacts its commercial interests or is deeply embarrassing (whether for the organisation or him personally of his team).

The latest recording, released by ITV, is worth dissecting. The new GC, Chris Aujard, was told by Second Sight, that his organisation may have pressured subpostmasters improperly into pleading guilty to serious criminal offences on the basis of false or non-existent evidence, failed to carry out investigations and misled the court.

It’s that serious.” he is told.

He responds:

My focus now is on dealing with each case as it comes through. So yeah, the macro, macro issues are another pot. They’re not in my pot. They belong to other parts of the organisation. I can feed through some of the thoughts on this call into that pot.


… I will absolutely relay on to the right people.

What is this garbage management-speak? He was the chief lawyer. He was one of the “right people“. He had an overriding duty to ensure that the organisation of which he was the GC did not behave unlawfully. He had an overriding duty to the court to ensure that it is not misled, whether expressly or by omission, a duty overriding any other duty to his client. If there was – as he was clearly told – the slightest chance of his organisation misleading a court during litigation and/or in criminal prosecutions, he should have been all over this. Not wittering about “pots”, “macro issues” and dumping his responsibilities on others like some latter-day Pontius Pilate. “Not my job” is not what a GC should be saying when told of unlawful, potentially criminal behaviour. A GC is not a passer-by at the scene of an accident.

What should have happened

He should have informed the full Board, including the non-executive directors, of what he’d been told and what needed to be done. Did he? If he was either not listened to or told to do nothing or that it was none of his business, he should have resigned and told the legal regulatory authorities, the courts and the government why. Of course, this would have required a sense of professionalism, some ethical sense and courage. Were these qualities more widespread in public and commercial life, our organisations would be in a much better state than they are.

What does this show us?

What this vignette (and the other recently released recordings) suggest is a Board lacking the necessary curiosity alerting them to what was happening at the executive level. Or, just as likely, a Board not wanting to know, making that clear and thereby stifling any chance of independent ethical action by managers from the executive level down.

It also suggests a legal department unwilling or unable to take full and proper responsibility for the company’s investigations team and the consequent prosecutions. What sort of an investigations team the Post Office actually had and whether it really did any investigations in the proper sense of that word will be for another time. (Spoiler: no.)

It is worth noting that this approach did not start with Mr Aujard. In 2010 the Post Office’s Head of Criminal Law, Rob Wilson, when asked for his views on having an independent investigation into Horizon said:

To continue prosecuting alleged offenders knowing that there is an ongoing investigation to determine the veracity of Horizon could also be detrimental to the reputation of my team.” (Emphasis added.)

His full response (see here) shows someone more concerned with adverse publicity, the Post Office’s reputation and damage to the business, as well as to his own team. His team’s reputation simply should not have been a factor when determining whether or not to have an independent investigation into a system whose data was being relied on in criminal prosecutions. In any event, it took another 2 years before such an investigation was commissioned.

What this recording also suggests is an organisation splitting up its management of – and responsibility for (“They’re not in my pot.”) – its response to what was being alleged in a way which weakened the GC’s authority, made it harder for any one senior person or department to see the extent of what was happening (or easier to turn a blind eye and disclaim responsibility, depending on how cynical you’re feeling) and easier to treat the constituent parts of the scandal as problems to be managed away rather than fully understood and properly handled.

Bad stuff happens

Employees will often break the rules, whether deliberately or by mistake. Sometimes they will try and cover up what they have done. Or say nothing, hoping the problem will go away. Or lie when asked. There is nothing unusual about this. But that is precisely why we have gatekeepers – in-house lawyers – to act when others don’t, when others are foolish or malicious or afraid to act. It is why the best test of an organisation’s culture is how it – its senior managers, its lawyers – respond when bad stuff happens, when things go wrong, when misfeasance, misconduct or just plain stupid mistakes come to light.

The Williams Inquiry resumes its hearings on 9 April with the interviews of a number of senior Post Office lawyers. It will be interesting to hear from them how they understood the scope of their role, whether they understood that they might sometimes be in a position where their duty to the court was in conflict with what their client wanted and what they should do in such a situation. And whether what they actually did was in line with the high standards which ought to be expected of them.

This is something all lawyers, especially in-house ones, have to have an answer to, even if you hope never to be put in such a position. An “I can’t remember.” or an “I see no ships” answer will not be good enough.


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