An immigration solicitor who brought meritless judicial reviews (JRs) has been fined £60,000 and banned for an indefinite period from making further applications.
Syed Wasif Ali was referred by Mr Justice Lane, president of the Upper Tribunal, to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) following a Hamid hearing, used when courts suspect abusive behaviour by immigration practitioners, in 2018.
The SRA launched an investigation which revealed that between January 2017 and March 2018, Mr Ali’s North-West London firm, Harrow Solicitors, brought 36 JRs, of which nine were out of time, and 11 certified as being totally without merit. Permission to was refused in every case.
The Upper Tribunal found that the cases displayed “a number of disturbing features”. In almost of all of them, the decision said to be challenged was the Home Office response to Mr Ali’s pre-action protocol letter regarding a JR.
But the Upper Tribunal said that a response to a letter of that kind did not amount to a “discrete decision, which can be separately challenged by judicial review”. Any solicitor specialising in immigration law “would be expected to know this”.
In his witness statement for the Hamid hearing, Mr Ali apologised for “filing judicial reviews out of time, drafting and filing of substandard judicial reviews”.
He promised not to file any more judicial reviews unless a barrister had assessed their merits.
Before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT), Mr Ali admitted breaching his professional obligations not to make submissions that he did not consider were properly arguable and that he brought claims which were an abuse of process.
He admitted making JR applications which had no legitimate purpose, in that they had no prospect of his client succeeding, and failed to advise clients on the poor merits of their claims.
He further admitted failing to properly supervise the work of unqualified case handlers and, between November 2017 and August 2019, being party to applications for British citizenship and leave to remain which “bore the hallmarks of being an abuse of the immigration system”.
Mr Ali denied that he “knew or recklessly disregarded the fact that his approach to immigration applications and judicial review was impermissible”, though he admitted manifest incompetence.
He further denied that he “recklessly took the risk that he was facilitating an abuse of the immigration system”.
The SDT accepted his admissions but disagreed on the issue of recklessness.
The tribunal said he “knew that there was a risk that he was making unarguable submissions” because he was submitting “almost identical claims to those which had been emphatically rejected and which he therefore knew were unarguable”.
It was satisfied he was also “aware of the risk that he was bringing claims that were an abuse of process” and “acted unreasonably in continuing to bring claims in the knowledge of that risk”.
In mitigation, Mr Ali argued that he was an honest solicitor and that the number of his cases in which there were problems represented a tiny fraction of the cases he had handled over the years.
He added that he had given up JR work as a result of the Hamid ruling and had recruited an associate solicitor to help him cope with his workload.
The tribunal decided that the solicitor’s conduct did not require a striking off or suspension, but was “significantly serious” in that he appropriate level of fine was the top level, which begins at £50,001 and is theoretically unlimited.
In settling on £60,000, the SDT said it accepted that Mr Ali would not be able to pay the whole sum immediately, but he had sufficient equity in his property to pay by instalments. He was also ordered to pay costs of £24,800.
The sole practitioner was made subject to a condition for an indefinite period preventing him from undertaking any work in relation to applications for JR, a move the tribunal said was necessary to protect the public.