FOR BUSINESS GEEKS THIS WEEK there was only one show in town and that was Wednesday’s appearance of retail tycoon Sir Philip Green before the Joint Select Committees’ inquiry into the collapse of retailer BHS. This proved to be an extraordinary six-hour performance against an equally extraordinary backdrop. The Serious Fraud Office has confirmed it is “reviewing material” covering the period of Green’s ownership, his sale of BHS for £1 to Retail Acquisitions, the consortium led by former bankrupt Dominic Chappell, and the circumstances of the insolvency itself. The Insolvency Service is fast-tracking its own investigation. On the crucial question of why he saw fit to sell the business to Chappell of all people, Sir Philip appeared to put this down to a combination of three things: (i) Goldman Sachs giving Chappell the thumbs up, although not acting in any fee earning advisory capacity; (ii) law firm Olswang and accountants Grant Thornton were seen to be willing to act for Chappell; and (iii) a reassuringly large team of people accompanied Chappell to meetings (seriously). He insisted, “I’m not here to blame anyone because that’s not my style. But there are some other people I could mention who are to blame”. Sir Philip seemed to suggest that the imprimatur of fee earning advisers was a substitute for reaching his own conclusions despite his assessment that the advisers "didn't know [Chappell] from a hole in the wall". The inquiry's members have most definitely taken due note of the pivotal role that professional advisers played in facilitating Chappell's short and ill-fated reign at BHS. They've also clocked the “financialisation” of the advisers' participation in the deal, through contingent/success fees and, possibly, an equity kicker. Corporate governance joins commercial judgement as casualty in the story. MPs raised with Sir Philip the absence of chairman Lord Grabiner QC from the crucial directors' meeting to approve the sale. Sir Philip would not be drawn but IainWright MP suggested that Sir Philip's "controlling" reputation would make it difficult for co-directors to stand in his way. Within five minutes of Green sitting down, it was clear that his catch phrases of the day would be “with all due respect” and “respectfully” but it didn’t stop him trying to run proceedings, frequently telling MPs they were asking the wrong question.
Green objected to how one MP was looking at him: “Sir, can you please stop looking at me like that”. He told another MP he looked better with his spectacles on. He objected to the whispering of a clerk. Sir Philip’s body language revealed his unease at not being in control, particularly after the half-time break after which he took to spreading his arms outwards over the neighbouring chairs. His mobile phone went off at one point, an old Nokia model which somehow fitted Sir Philip as someone who made his name in an earlier iteration of free market capitalism, before post-crash economic depression. MPs homed in on sale and lease-back deals and other manoeuvres. Contradicting Chappell’s evidence that Green had gone “insane” at the prospect of Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct acquiring BHS, Green laid claim to personal friendship with Ashley. Green said he had no knowledge of why Ashley’s last minute bid failed. Perhaps in response to Green’s implausible claim to have no knowledge of the accounts of companies in his wife’s name, MPs have now called Lady Tina Green to appear before them.
THE SIGNET LIBRARY HOSTED members of the Scottish Session Papers Digitalisation Project this week. Principal Researcher James Hamilton assisted by Karen Baston represented the WS Society. Those attending included Professor George Gretton WS and Professor John Cairns of the University of Edinburgh’s Law School and Andrea Longson, Senior Librarian at the Advocates Library. The Signet Library was the first to have the index to its Session Papers digitalised. The Session Papers are a record of early proceedings at the Court of Session and, aside from being a source of early legal decisions, they provide a fascinating source for historical and sociological research. James Hamilton, who curates the Signet Library’s historical collection, says the project is “an effort to have Scotland's civil court papers c.1705-1850 fully digitised and made available online. Given that every famous name, every place, every industry, everything, features in these materials, and given how the courts then dealt with much that is considered the role of government or civil administration now, this promises to enrich profoundly the story of the Scottish Enlightenment”. The project pilot begins in the autumn and the Signet Library’s Session Papers will be heavily involved. Hamilton and Baston’s hard work and dedication have ensured that the Signet Library’s Session Papers are in good order, recently cleaned and re-organised. As Professor Gretton was heard to remark, the Signet Library’s Session Papers have never looked better. No doubt the papers contain proceedings as colourful and entertaining as Sir Philip Green’s appearance at Westminster.
A DELEGATION FROM THE IRISH LAW SOCIETY visited the Signet Library a few days ago. They were interested to hear about Signet Accreditation, the innovation of the WS Society begun ten years ago to accredit legal specialist through assessment. The Irish Law Society’s Director of Education, “TP” Kennedy and his colleagues listened to WS Society CEO Robert Pirrie WS describe the assessment which puts each candidate through a simulation of day-to-day legal work which is then double blind marked. The Irish group were impressed by the forward-thinking behind the accreditation project before retiring for lunch in Colonnades. It is a pity that more solicitors and law firms in Scotland have not taken up the challenge of Signet Accreditation. This is due partly to the fact that the Law Society of Scotland’s own specialist accreditation, which has been running for over 30 years, is better known and doesn't entail the same “fear of failure” of an assessment. How long the WS Society will run its accreditation scheme without more being done to promote assessment as an effective means of professional development for the solicitors' profession is a moot point. Is it an idea ahead of its time?
THE GAME OF GOLF has been in the news recently owing to Muirfield’s controversial decision not to admit women to membership on the same terms as men. A more profound difficulty arose in 1457 when a statute outlawed the sport altogether. Golf, the statue thundered, “should be utterly condemned and stopped”. Sadly, as some might say, the law was repealed in 1471.
Writer's Week is not intended to represent the views of the WS Society or its members.