Ex-Wolstenholmes partner allowed to return to law firm ownership

SDT: No reason to continue with partnership restriction

A former partner at Wolstenholmes – the conveyancing firm whose catastrophic collapse cost the profession £13m – can become a partner once more after a ban was removed.

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said Bilal Khawaja – who was also suspended for a year for misconduct – was “on a journey of rehabilitation” and that he could still not work as a sole practitioner.

Mr Khawaja, who was born in 1979 and qualified in 2008, trained at the Cheshire law firm and became a partner in 2009, just a few months before the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) shut it down.

The regulator found significant and serious accounting irregularities and that non-solicitor third parties had inappropriate control and influence over the firm.

More than 2,500 clients made claims on the Solicitors Compensation Fund, at a cost of more than £13m – its largest ever payout from the activities of a single firm.

Three partners were struck off and Mr Khawaja and one other partner were suspended. He was banned from being a partner or a sole practitioner too, and from working for a law firm without SRA permission.

There were director disqualifications too in 2013, Mr Khawaja for six years.

The original SDT was satisfied that the solicitor had not been involved in the large-scale wrongdoing of the firm and had not acted dishonestly.

However, he had confined himself to his own work and department and, contrary to his obligations, he had not tried to get involved in wider issues of management.

His conduct as a member of the firm had been wholly unacceptable as a result, the tribunal decided.

After Wolstenholmes was shut down, Mr Khawaja worked as an assistant solicitor at another firm with the SRA’s permission until his suspension was imposed. After it ended, he started working as an associate at his current firm.

In his application to remove the restrictions, the solicitor noted the length of time that had elapsed since the misconduct, which had happened at a very early stage of his career in circumstances he described as “unique and complex”; due to his lack of experience, he said he had not been fully equipped to deal with the issues which arose.

He also pointed to his subsequent work history and the fact there had been no further allegations, breaches or complaints, as well as to the training he has since undertaken to better understand his responsibilities.

The firm where he now worked, Mr Khawaja said, was run by a solicitor who had “a stringent approach to rules and regulations” and this had allowed him “to experience day to day management and learn how to identify and deal with risk factors, manage files effectively and comply with rules and regulations to prevent any breaches before they occurred”.

Both his current and previous employer provided the tribunal with testimonials, while the SRA adopted a neutral position on the application.

The SDT said it was “satisfied on balance” that Mr Khawaja had demonstrated “genuine insight and good motivation to improve his rehabilitation still further”.

“The tribunal noted that in his submissions the applicant had focused very heavily on his work and what he wanted to do in the future in terms of career progression and the opportunities he may be prevented taking up if the conditions were not removed.

“However, the tribunal considered that the applicant could be thinking a bit more widely: he could present courses; carry out pro bono work and use his experience to educate others more widely about the pitfalls into which he fell.”

There “appeared no reason” to continue with the restrictions on becoming a partner or needing SRA permission to work for a firm, however.

But the SDT went on: “The tribunal considered that the applicant was on a journey of rehabilitation and that whilst this continued and to protect the public from future risk and avoid damage to the reputation of the profession, it was appropriate and proportionate to retain a restriction on the applicant precluding him from practising as a sole practitioner.”

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