The High Court has ordered a high-profile solicitor to surrender her firm’s files after the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) closed it down but she refused to co-operate.
The regulator intervened in the practice of Soophia Khan, who ran Sophie Khan & Co in Leicester, in August, saying there was “reason to suspect dishonesty” on her part.
She is challenging the decision in separate High Court proceedings, it emerged in the decision of Mr Justice Adam Johnson from early September, but only published yesterday.
Ms Khan specialises is actions against the state – particularly the police and the military – and often appears in the national media.
The SRA told the court that Ms Khan refused to attend a meeting at her firm’s offices after it decided to intervene; she indicated that she intended to continue practising, even though her practising certificate was automatically suspended as a result of the intervention.
In early September, a tweet from the firm’s account said it had been taken over by Just for Public Ltd and that “client work continues as normal”.
In a bid to adjourn the SRA’s application for permission to search for and seize the firm’s files, and redirect communications sent to it and her, Ms Khan said this showed that the interests of clients were being served.
She also argued that the application should be adjourned pending her expedited challenge to the intervention, which will be heard on the first available date after 25 October.
But Johnson J said the intervention was currently effective and “cannot be ignored”.
“Compliance is not optional. It is an extreme measure but one taken by the SRA in discharge of its regulatory functions and obligations in order to regulate the profession and to protect the public.”
He rejected Ms Khan’s argument that there was no problem because she was able to “wear other hats” in dealing with her clients.
“That indication gives me little assurance that the clients will in fact effectively be dealt with and, indeed, raises a concern about the possibility of such clients being serviced by means of Ms Khan undertaking regulated activities without, as matters stand today, the appropriate regulatory approvals being in place.
“The fact is that the practice’s clients will have ongoing matters and they are entitled to ongoing support and advice from an appropriately qualified practising solicitor.
“Ms Khan is not in a position to provide such support, and neither is the SRA’s agent if he is unable to access the practice’s documents.”
The judge found insufficient comfort too from her submissions about Just for Public, an unregulated not-for-profit organisation of which she is one of two directors.
The precise arrangements relating to Just for Public – whose website is under construction – were “entirely opaque and difficult to understand”, Johnson J said.
The fact that Ms Khan appeared connected with it “raises more concerns than it alleviates”.
In any case, once the SRA had exercised its power to intervene, “it was not really open to Ms Khan herself to make determinations about how the practice documents of her former practice should be dealt with and not open to her to make communications with her former clients in that regard”.
Further, he expressed concern about Ms Khan’s lack of cooperation and noted that she had failed to comply with an order issued in January by Master Clark to hand over files to the SRA on another matter after she did not comply with its statutory requests.
“This unfortunate track record of non-compliance, taken together with the evidence I have of the lack of cooperation in light of the SRA’s intervention, justifies, to my mind, the conclusion that the search exercise is appropriate and indeed necessary in order to protect the interests of the practice’s clients.”
The redirection of communications was appropriate on the same basis, “given the justifiable concern that any order dependent on cooperation may be ignored. It is necessary to make an order which takes matters out of Ms Khan’s hands”.
Johnson J added: “I should say that I am fully conscious of the fact that the orders sought are draconian in nature, but in my judgment they are justified in the interests of the affected clients.”
He ordered that she pay £35,000 of the SRA’s costs of the hearing; it had claimed £41,000.
Ms Khan has applied for the ruling to be set aside.
Ms Khan has also been in conflict with the Law Society. Earlier this year, her claim for victimisation was struck out by an employment tribunal on the basis that, as the chair of its civil justice committee, she was not an employee or office-holder.
In addition to Just for Public, she is director of legal and policy at the Police Action Centre, a charity, and was on Sky News earlier this month in this role to discuss policing after the murder of Sarah Everard.
Her Twitter biography links also to the Military Justice Centre and the recently launched Sophie Centre, “a bespoke advice service and ADR forum for civil rights dispute resolution”.