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  1. Law
September 1, 2007

ID, Please

By Spear's

Nigel West says that when employing any kind of contractor – lawyer, surgeon, driver, nanny – your first move should always be to check them out thoroughly.

A recent British High Commissioner in Islamabad would routinely take the wheel of his official limousine, insisting that he was a better driver than his chauffeur, and pointing out that on a previous posting to Kabul, soon after he had joined the Diplomatic Corps, he had driven the entire route overland from London, an experience that had formed his views on the wisdom of allowing others, especially strangers, completely unknown to you, taking control of your life.

The same principle applies to so many other areas where consumers, however sophisticated and knowledgeable in their own fields, entrust vital decisions to others on perhaps the flimsiest of recommendations. Most likely you became your bank’s customer when you were at university, or simply accepted your parents’ advice. Your divorce lawyer was chosen at the suggestion of a friend who had undergone the trauma. Your fitness trainer, cosmetic surgeon, accountant, investment analyst, media consultant, Learjet pilot, lobbyist, gamekeeper and private investigator may also have been selected on an entirely unscientific basis.

The penalties of failing to take even the most obvious precautions are clear. Who could imagine that the mother of the heir to the British throne would be killed by a driver who had never attended a driving course? Or that an incompetent doctor could accidentally slice through a British prime minister’s bile duct during an otherwise entirely routine surgery? Or that a fully-qualified and respected barrister would fabricate a bogus judgment in order to entrap an adversary?

Unthinkable perhaps, but Princess Diana died after an intoxicated Henri Paul lost control of his Mercedes, Sir Anthony Eden suffered hideous medical complications as a result of his surgeon’s blunder, and an innocent father nearly went to prison when his ex-wife’s lawyer dishonestly sought to prevent him bringing an action for access to his children.

Even the cleverest brains can fall victim to a plausible conman. The thriller-writer Freddie Forsyth was robbed of a fortune by his personal investment adviser, and Albert Einstein was persuaded to test the orgone box, promoted as a means to focus cosmic energy into the creation of sexual ecstasy. Its designer, Wilhelm Reich, the modern equivalent of a snake-oil salesman, died in prison, his contraption condemned as worthless.

Although some complain about the nanny state and over-regulation, there are many areas of life where the professions essentially regulate themselves. Worse, there are some fields that purport to offer the protection of supervision, but the struggle of attempting to gain redress afterwards suggests that some bodies are more like trade protection groups rather than transparent and effective regulatory authorities.

Very often, an impressively-titled, apparently independent organisation will be nothing more than a prosperous lobbyist deployed by a particular specialist interest group whose main preoccupation is to resist pressure for regulation, oversight and accountability.

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Take, for instance, the private investigator who has been hired to check on whether a newly-acquired girlfriend is truly a gold-digger, or if a potential emerging-markets partner is actually solvent. Much emotional or financial security may depend on the PI’s report, but how dependable is he (or she)?

There is no requirement in Britain to register or qualify as a professional snoop, in much the same way that virtually anyone can describe themselves as an estate agent and go into business buying or selling property for others. An attempt in Belgium to regulate the private security industry was rejected by the European Court, thus kicking into touch similar proposed legislation in Britain and Ireland.

You may be well advised to check your candidate’s credentials with the Association of British Investigators or the World Association of Professional Investigators, but both organisations exercise negative vetting, and do not offer a blacklist for public viewing, but rather an openly available membership directory. In other words, there is not a public blacklist of rogue private eyes for potential clients to check.

The same system has been adopted by similar groups, ranging from the Baltic Air Charter Association and the US National Business Aviation Association, to the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons run by the Royal College of Surgeons, and divorce specialists sponsored by The Lawyer magazine.

Anyone engaged in childcare or looking after the vulnerable can obtain a license, but these are not mandatory in all circumstances. However, a little-known policy adopted by law enforcement agencies across much of the world enables anyone to apply for data held about them on official police files, and this will include details of formal cautions and criminal convictions.

Whilst prospective employers usually cannot have their own access to this information, they can require job applicants to supply the necessary certification, which is available within forty days for a fee of £10 at any police station, and remains valid for twelve months.

Following all too many scandals, the police, lawyers and the financial industry have been forced to regain public trust by introducing independent scrutiny. Secondary banking collapses and dubious practices in the Lloyds insurance market persuaded legislators to give teeth to the Financial Services Authority and to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, which both maintain registers of approved advisers. Similarly, after years of closed-shop self-protection administered by the Law Society, the Legal Complaints Service now handles up to three hundred enquiries a day.

The Institute of Chartered Accountants also runs a public directory but few consumer protection organisations provide a facility to check the credentials of, say, a drunken pilot or a struck-off solicitor. Certainly the US Transportation Safety Agency keeps a private blacklist of unreliable aircrew, but there is no public access, and the Food and Drug Administration and its British counterpart have schedules of unsafe medicines, but they are not easy to research.

The internet might have been thought to be the ideal solution, a universal, instantaneously available source of information, but the unpalatable truth is that ostensibly unpartisan websites, Wikipedia being a notorious example, are filled with biased content often manufactured by agenda-driven nerds. Accordingly, in the ether of uncertainty, the remedy is direct contact with the relevant professional bodies, or the demand for police certification. In a post-Roman age, caveat emptor remains as valid as ever.

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