Monday, 2 July 2012

Collingwood Thompson QC



When it comes to the Barclays banking scandal, Collingwood Thompson QC has seen it all before.  One of the leading lights in 7 Bedford Row's Regulatory and White Collar Crime team, Collingwood started practising law in the 1970s, so decades before the Financial Services Markets Act of 2000 that created the FSA, and long before The Death of Gentlemanly Capitalism in the 1980s when the bowler-hatted old boy network was replaced by red-braced and brash casino-style bankers. He began at a time when relationships in financial institutions were so family-like and cosy that insider trading wasn't even unlawful, just the accepted was to get ahead in the City. And over the years we have observed the growth of financial regulation. Today Collingwood is a leading silk in his chosen area of specialism, working in both civil and criminal courts in London, regularly advising on overseas cases as well, also sitting part time as a judge on the Midlands circuit.

Our conversation took place during a journey to the BBC this week, for Collingwood to do a Newsnight interview. 

Collingwood had been invited by the Newsnight team to be their "expert talking head, explaining to viewers how the myriad legal issues in the scandal, particularly any criminal proceedings, might play out. I was fascinated to hear his views on how this latest scandal could potentially change the face of the banking world as we know it. Collingwood is not a man to sit on the fence (for which the Newsnight team love him of course!)

"When you think that no individual banker has been convicted for their part in the events that led to the current economic crisis, it makes you realise what a charmed life bankers have led.  Instead it's the corporate entities that are penalised - and who suffers then?  That's right: shareholders and tax payers, the public at large.  But this latest debacle is all about dishonesty - the FSA Report makes it clear there has been deliberate distortion of the market to enhance the profits of the bank and the size of individuals' bonuses.   This is undoubtedly fraud and I don't think the public will stomach it this time if the individuals responsible are not made to pay.  But is there sufficient political will to see through a rigorous investigation? And do the regulatory authorities have enough money and other resources behind them in any event?  It's sobering to think that Barclays' £60m fine is sizeably larger than the SFOs entire annual budget.

"But is this really a new phenomenon? No, we've seen this all before.  In fact long before even my earliest years in financial services litigation.  One of the leading legal precedents in this area is 200 years old and has a direct bearing on the events emerging in the last few days: in the famous Stock Market Fraud of 1814 false reports of Napoleon's death were deliberately circulated to manipulate the bond market.  The high profile naval hero Lord Cochrane was brought down by the scandal. He and his co-conspirators were sentenced to 12 months in prison, a fine of £1,000 each and an hour in the public pillory. In addition Lord Cochrane was stripped of his naval rank."

Reading up on this case, one key difference stands out in comparison to the present day; in Lord Cochrane's case, public opinion was most definitely on his side: after his prison terms was over he was re-elected to the House of Commons, and due to the public outcry over how he had been treated the punishment of pillory was abolished.  Not sure that the bankers in this latest scandal can expect such forgiving treatment from the general public. 

"What I think the public will really object to if fraudulent bankers are not brought to account, is the contrast with how individuals at the other end of the social spectrum have been treated. A good illustration is the authorities' determination to make an example of last summer's London rioters, jailing a college student with no previous criminal record for six months for stealing a £3.50 case of bottled water. Will the public stick watching banking fraudsters go free? I don't think so."

I can't argue with the man. You can view his snippet on Newsnight here.

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The highlight of my week though was The Lawyer Awards. Not just for the glitz (The Grosvenor House), the entertainment (Jason Manford) and the legal celeb-spotting (we all knew Robert Jay was going to win Barrister of the Year for his high profile lead council role in the Leveson Inquiry). For me the thrill was seeing friends collect well-deserved awards on the night. Russell Jones & Walker Slater & Gordon's Manchester based Mike Cain named as one of the top two Assistant Solicitors in the entire country; the firm's employment team coming second in Employment team of the Year category. Mayer Brown's mining team winning Infrastructure/Energy team of the Year, for their pioneering work putting in place Afghanistan's first mining code; and best of all seeing the Brecher team's incredulous faces when their win as Boutique Firm of the Year was announced. I used to work in-house at the old Brecher & Co before its merger with Nicholson Graham & Jones and 15 years ago reported to Valerie and Andrew Brecher, who head the new firm today and I knew Nicky Richmond well there too, now the new firm's joint Managing Partner (as well as famed legal blogger and tweeter). I have to say these guys are seriously self-effacing. Knowing them so intimately and having the advantage of the consultant's helicopter view I've always known how outstanding they are. My challenge was to persuade them to see themselves the same way and have the confidence to put an award submission in. I felt particularly emotionally invested and was over the moon to see them win. You couldn't wipe the beam off my face for the rest of the week! No more hiding lights under bushels for them. Congratulations Brecher! This award absolutely went to the right firm! 

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Wish I could have been at the London Solicitor's Litigation Association's 60th Anniversary bash, but sadly it clashed with The Lawyer Awards. Kysen was represented of course, (our Adele Baxby made lots of new friends among the Junior LSLA), but I couldn't be there myself. By all accounts it was a great event, celebrating just how far the LSLA has come since its inception. Over the past 60 years it has grown in influence, for example advising on the plans for the new commercial court complex at Rolls Building before it opened (this is the court famous for handling Oligarch and other overseas big-ticket litigation). At the same time the LSLA has been campaigning hard at the small ticket end of the litigation market having a key role in the Jackson Review. President Francesca Kaye believes strongly that to maintain its status as a world class legal system London must be capable of serving both its own people at all levels of the market, as well as attracting lucrative litigation from other parts of the world. And with the Junior LSLA growing like topsy since its launch just over a year ago, the LSLA's influence looks set to increase long into the future. 

My favorite story though was hearing how former President and high profile legal pundit David Greene opened the dance floor by proffering a hand to current President Francesca. Those who know David well will be aware he has been on crutches the last few months after a fall from a ladder. Ever the gentleman, he at least put his crutches aside for the dance, but even Frankie's grace was challenged as he wheeled her round the floor with a big plaster of paris boot on his foot. What a picture! Shame no cameras were allowed. :-)

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