A solicitor failed to comply with court orders to produce files to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), a High Court master has ruled, despite her claim that she hand-delivered them.
Master Clark said that despite the “undoubted stress” the SRA’s proceedings caused sole practitioner Soophia Khan, principal of Sophie Khan & Co, and the difficulties of being both witness and solicitor-advocate in the proceedings, she did not “find her a satisfactory witness”.
The SRA issued the production notice under section 44B of the Solicitors Act 1974 in the summer of 2017 as part of its investigation into complaints received from two of Ms Khan’s former clients.
It requested the client files for both cases but claimed the file received for one was not complete (the Martin file) and received nothing at all for the other (the Coulthard files).
Ms Khan’s response was that that there was no documentation outstanding in respect of the Martin file and her firm was “exercising a proprietary right” over the Coulthard files.
Master Clark said Ms Khan’s evidence at the hearing in November was “characterised by either a refusal to answer questions or a refusal to engage with the question asked; and in some respects… it was not credible”.
She went on: “These were questions directed towards the reasons put forward by her for not complying with the notice. Even after I had ruled that those questions were properly put and directed her to answer them, she refused to do so.
“In those circumstances, although her refusal was highly likely to be a contempt in the face of the court, I decided not to refer the matter to the judge, as this would have resulted in yet another adjournment of the trial.”
The SRA commenced its claim in November 2018 and it was originally listed to be tried in August 2019. At that hearing, Ms Khan “conceded for the first time that the firm was obliged to comply with the notice”, Master Clark said.
However, Ms Khan claimed she had already delivered the files to the SRA’s offices in Birmingham in May 2019, which the regulator disputed.
At the hearing in August 2019, the master ordered Sophie Khan & Co to deliver to the SRA a “complete copy” of the Coulthard files by 4 September 2019.
“However, it has not complied with the order. Instead, it sought (unsuccessfully) to appeal against the order,” the master recounted.
Further orders to the same effect were made in January 2020 by Mr Justice Birss and April 2020 by herself, but the law firm again failed to comply.
The master rejected Ms Khan’s various reasons for non-compliance, such as a solicitors’ lien – the SRA’s statutory powers are exercisable notwithstanding any lien or right to a file’s possession.
In any case, Ms Khan’s evidence was that she travelled from Leicester to the SRA on 21 May 2019 to deliver the files.
She produced copies of train tickets and said that she went to The Cube, where the SRA has its offices, and explained to the building receptionist that she was delivering client files – the SRA’s own reception is not open to the public.
The SRA’s policy is that, where visitors arrive without any prior arrangement, the building reception staff should refuse to accept any item for security purposes and tell the visitor that they should use a recognised courier service. If the individual insists on hand-delivering, they are to be given a leaflet summarising the policy.
Ms Khan claimed she handed over a covering letter and four bundles of papers and that the receptionist said they would be passed on. She did not ask for a receipt.
Master Clark rejected the solicitor’s evidence. “[Ms Khan’s] performance was not such as to give confidence in the reliability of her evidence, and certainly not to require its acceptance,” she said.
Further, Ms Khan’s evidence, if accepted, “would have required the staff at The Cube to have wholly disregarded the deliveries policy… In my judgment, this is inherently unlikely”.
Delivering up the files in May 2019 was also not consistent with Ms Khan’s later non-compliance with the court orders to provide copies.
Master Clark concluded: “In my judgment, taking into account the totality of the evidence, and assessing the likelihood of whether the delivery alleged by the firm occurred, I consider that on the balance of probabilities it did not.”
It followed that the SRA’s claim succeeded.