A decision by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) to suspend a solicitor for two years has been reduced to one by the High Court, which described the penalty as “clearly excessive and inappropriate”.
Mr Justice Mostyn said: “In my opinion a suspension for as long as two years is an extremely severe sanction.
“A suspension of that length would only be appropriate where the facts were close to warranting an order striking the solicitor off.
“In my judgment this was not a case where the penalty was close to striking off. The period of suspension was much too long.”
However, likening the result of Mr Lawson’s appeal to a “draw”, Mostyn J did not disturb the SDT’s order that he should pay £4,000 costs and made no order for the costs of the High Court hearing.
The court heard in Lawson v SRA  EWHC 1237 (Admin) that Karibo Lawson was a salaried partner working on criminal litigation at Beevers Solicitors.
“Things started to go wrong in the firm in the mid-2000s and, after a serious downturn (particularly in the firm’s private work), the partnership began to break up,” Mostyn J said.
“As a result, as from 6 September 2010 only the appellant and Mr Ellis-Dokubo remained as partners.”
Boma Ellis-Dokubo was struck off by the SDT and ordered to pay £25,000 costs at the same hearing where Mr Lawson was suspended. All of the allegations against Mr Ellis-Dokubo was found to be proved, including allegations of dishonesty.
Mr Lawson was accused of failing to act in the best interests of clients, breaches of the Accounts Rules, failing to co-operate with the Solicitors Regulation Authority, failing to report that the firm was in ‘serious financial difficulty’ or make sure it had qualifying insurance.
Mostyn J described how, in 2012, the solicitors were evicted from their offices, owned by Mr Ellis-Dokubo, after the mortgagee obtained a possession order.
“During this period of decline and fall Mr Ellis-Dokubo engaged in dishonest retention and misuse of client monies,” Mostyn J said.
“He deliberately concealed from clients the fact that the firm had received damages on their behalf, and then dishonestly retained those funds at a time when the firm was in acute financial difficulty.”
Mostyn J went on: “On 10 July 2012 the SRA commenced a forensic investigation into the firm. On that day the Investigator and a lady (Ms AF) from the SRA’s Supervision Department attended the firm. Mr Ellis-Dokubo was in Nigeria.
“The appellant explained that he had no access to, or knowledge of, the firm’s books of account. He informed the investigator that Mr Ellis-Dokubo owned the firm’s premises. He did not explain that the firm’s premises were on the verge of being repossessed.
“He also failed to mention that both he and Mr Ellis-Dokubo were facing imminent bankruptcy, and that civil judgments had been entered against them in the County Court.”
Mostyn J said: “It is important that I record that at the SDT and in this court the appellant is recognised as a man of good character who has always acted in the best interests of his own clients when conducting their cases.
“Further it important that I record that there is no suggestion that the appellant was ever to the smallest degree an active participant in the delinquencies concerning the client money.
“The case against him was that he was passively complicit. It was not that he knew, but that he ought to have known, what was going on.”