We regularly have callers seeking advice on an anonymous basis. It’s all a bit secret squirrel!
Sometimes callers don’t even want to give their own names.
More often, they don’t want to give the name of their opponent ‘in case we are already acting for them’.
Sometimes callers don’t understand why we have to turn them away if they insist on anonymity.
We can’t take on their work or offer any advice on this basis, for very good reasons.
Firstly, solicitors owe a strict duty of confidentiality to existing clients. If you get advice from us we don’t tell anyone else about it. We won’t tell them that you have sought that advice, or what the advice was.
The second is that we are also prohibited from advising anyone where that person’s interests are in conflict to an existing client’s, or our own.
We obviously couldn’t advise someone about a dispute with our firm or any of its partners or staff, and we couldn’t advise someone about a matter involving one of our existing clients.
So, without the name of the opponent, we can’t check whether we’d be put into a conflict of interest situation by advising the caller.
No-one here knows off by heart the identity of the thousands of clients Wards has advised or acted for. We take on hundreds of new clients per week across the firm. We rely on our computer system to alert us to possible conflicts of interest.
We can’t generally advise on an anonymous basis either, when someone wants help without giving their own name. We are under a legal & professional obligation to ‘know our clients’ and obtain ID. We also need to know whether someone else in the firm might be advising a third party to take action against the prospective client.
If it’s identified that we are already acting for, or have advised the opponent, and that a conflict of interest exists, we can’t say that this is the case without giving away that we have advised the opponent in some way.
This would disclose who our clients are to any caller. That would breach our existing client’s right of confidentiality.
So, if we do identify that we can’t act due to a potential conflict of interest, we just have to decline instructions ‘for professional reasons’ and without giving any further reason.
This can be frustrating to people who have sensibly set their hearts on getting specialist legal advice from their local office of Wards.
It can be frustrating for us too, when we can’t explain why we cannot help.
These important and fundamental rules about conflict of interests are in place to protect the public against situations where solicitors cannot act transparently in the best interests of the client – a primary duty of any solicitor.
Besides, if you won’t give us your name, where would we send our bill?!