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Law firms investigated over copyright cash demands

Two Davenport Lyons partners have been referred to a disciplinary tribunal for sending payment-demanding letters to people accused of unlawful file-sharing
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

The UK's legal industry regulator is investigating two law firms over the sending of payment-demanding letters to people accused of unlawful file-sharing.

On Thursday, the consumer protection group Which? said the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) had decided to send two Davenport Lyons partners to the SRA's disciplinary tribunal, following a Which? complaint.

The SRA confirmed to ZDNet UK on Friday that the regulator was also in the early stages of investigating another firm, ACS:Law, over similar complaints.

Acting on behalf of copyright holders, Davenport Lyons had sent out letters to people suspected of file-sharing copyrighted material such as music, games and films, demanding payment of around £500 to avoid being taken to court.

"We're pleased to see some action at last from the SRA and hope the tide is finally turning in favour of consumers," Which? legal affairs chief Deborah Prince said in a statement. "We now want to see some decisive action to stop these bully-boy tactics."

Which? made its complaint to the SRA in December 2008, accusing Davenport Lyons of "excessive" tactics. The group said the law firm's letters had "made incorrect assertions about the nature of copyright infringement; ignored the evidence presented in defence; and increased the level of compensation claimed over the period of correspondence".

Davenport Lyons's letters had also incorrectly asserted that failing to properly secure an internet connection was grounds for legal action, Which? claimed.

On Monday, the SRA referred the conduct of Brian Miller and David Gore, two Davenport Lyons partners, to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal. This move followed a preliminary investigation, criticised by Which? on Thursday as being too lengthy.

The consumer protection group noted in its statement that ACS:Law and another law firm, Tilly Bailey Irvine Solicitors, have started sending out similar letters since the Davenport Lyons complaint was made.

The BPI, the UK's music industry trade group, condemned ACS:Law's letter-writing campaign in January, saying it was "at odds with the proportionate and graduated response advocated by BPI".

"We can confirm ACS:Law are under a similar investigation [to the Davenport Lyons case]," SRA spokesman Geoffrey Negus told ZDNet UK on Friday, adding that the ACS:Law investigation was still in its preliminary stages. The SRA has not confirmed the identity of the complainant.

Which? hopes the SRA's decision regarding Davenport Lyons "sends a message to law firms like ACS and TBI that they can't make a quick buck by accusing people of copyright infringements they haven't committed", Prince said in the consumer group's statement on Thursday.

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