Kulwant Singh Manak v Solicitors Regulation Authority (2018)
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal had been justified in suspending a solicitor for two years for professional misconduct, but had erred in imposing continuing restrictions on his practice for an indefinite period. It had not provided reasons why the restrictions were necessary and appropriate and had not heard submissions from the solicitor on the issue. Where no explanation was given, there was no yardstick against which anyone considering a future application to vary or lift the restrictions could measure his subsequent conduct.
The appellant solicitor appealed against the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal's findings of professional misconduct against him and its imposition of a suspension and restrictions on practice.
The appellant had been a partner in a law firm. The respondent Solicitors Regulation Authority had brought successful misconduct proceedings against him on the basis that he had mishandled client money and acted recklessly and without integrity in relation to a number of conveyancing transactions. During the proceedings the tribunal had noted that a witness against the appellant had lied to the tribunal, and it had rejected aspects of his evidence as incapable of belief. The appellant was suspended from practice for two years, after which he would be subject to conditions for an indefinite period which would prohibit him from holding client money, being a signatory on any client account and working as a solicitor other than in employment approved by the SRA. The tribunal ordered that the SRA received 75% of its costs, and required the appellant to pay 85% of that sum.
The appellant contended that (1) the tribunal had been wrong to find the allegations against him proved as the witness evidence was contradictory and the tribunal had failed to view it objectively; (2) his two year suspension was disproportionate or should have been deemed to have been served as he had not worked as a solicitor since late 2013 when the SRA had commenced proceedings, and the continuing restrictions on practice were unduly onerous and restrictive; (3) the costs order was excessive and unjustified.
The allegations against the appellant - Notwithstanding the deficiencies in the SRA's drafted case, the case against the appellant was sufficiently clear. The tribunal had considered the lengthy evidence from both sides and had been entitled to make the findings it did. There had been grounds for challenging the credibility of the witness but that did not mean that the tribunal had not been entitled to reach its adverse decision against the appellant. It had not been bound to reject everything the witness said: it could accept parts of his evidence notwithstanding the issues as to his credibility which it had clearly, considered. It was entitled to form its own assessment of which evidence to accept. An appeal such as the instant case was not a re-hearing of the evidence. The appellant was unable to do more than express his reasons for disagreeing with aspects of the tribunal's decision; he had not shown that it was wrong (see para.59 of judgment).
The suspensionperiod and continuing restrictions - A fixed term suspension was appropriate and two years was not excessive. The fact that the appellant had not worked as a solicitor since 2013 did not assist him as the sanction would not be effective if the period of time when he was not working as a result of the instant proceedings was regarded as sufficient. Having contested the matter at length, he could not complain that the overall result was that he had been unable to practise for a substantial period of time before his suspension came into effect. However, the tribunal had not given a reason why continuing restrictions were necessary and appropriate and had not heard submissions from the appellant on the issue. There had to be some basis for concluding that a defaulting solicitor, on whom an appropriate penalty had been imposed, required restrictions on their future practice. If no explanation was given of the basis for and length of restrictions, there was no yardstick against which anyone considering a future application to vary or lift them could measure the appellant's subsequent conduct. Continuing restrictions would disproportionately limit the appellant's ability to earn a living. It had been unlawful to impose such substantial restrictions without inviting submissions or giving reasons, and they went beyond what was necessary and appropriate. The restrictions preventing him from holding client money, being a signatory on any client account and working as a solicitor other than in employment approved by the SRA were quashed (paras 61-63, 66).
Costs - The tribunal had noted that the SRA had been unsuccessful in some of its allegations and its case had been poorly drafted, but the case had been properly brought and the allegations proved had been very serious. The tribunal had properly exercised its discretion as to the apportionment of costs (para.65).
Appeal allowed in part