The High Court has ordered the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to make a fresh judgment of a would-be solicitor’s character and suitability to join the profession after finding that it had wrongly denied her an oral hearing to explain an issue that it decided showed dishonesty.
Rizwana Yussouf failed to declare that she had previously been subject to a county court judgment, which she said was because she thought the question only applied to debts that had not been satisfied.
Ms Yussouf is in her mid-50s and finished her training contract in 2012 but her failure to pass the character and suitability test meant she was not admitted as a solicitor when she applied in 2015.
An SRA adjudication panel found that she had been dishonest and had also mislead the regulator with the documents she supplied.
Ms Yussouf put forward various grounds to appeal the decision, and Mr John Howell QC, sitting as a deputy High Court judge, found for her on the first – that the panel was wrong to deny her an oral hearing.
The judge said: “In my judgment whether she needed to be heard orally in order fairly to determine the credibility of that explanation depends on whether an oral hearing could truly have made no difference given what the documents disclosed.
“The critical matter in answering that question is not what may appear to be the implausibility of a person of Ms Yussouf’s age and experience misreading a clearly worded question more than once. How implausible that may be could be illuminated by her being questioned.
“The critical matter concerns the statements made by her representatives that stated or implied that she did not know of the existence of the 2009 judgment at the relevant times when she accepts that she did.
“Such earlier statements would be inconsistent with the explanation she later gave that her non-disclosure of the 2009 judgment was based on a misunderstanding.”
Mr Howell said the crucial question was whether the panel could fairly draw the inferences it did against her from these statements without giving Ms Yussouf the opportunity to respond to them.
“On this my judgment has wavered. Ultimately, and with some considerable hesitation, I have concluded that they could not do so.”
Mr Howell allowed the appeal and said the panel should consider Ms Yussouf’s application afresh.
“It is also in both Ms Yussouf’s and the public interest that the question of her honesty is determined sooner, rather than later.”
More generally, the judge said the SRA should hold oral hearings for character and suitability applications “when material facts are in dispute which cannot fairly be resolved on the basis of the documentation available or when a significant explanation or mitigation is advanced which needs to be heard orally in order fairly to determine its credibility.
“When considering whether the applicant has acted dishonestly, if such factual issues arise or such an explanation is advanced, fairness requires that an opportunity should be provided to give evidence on such matters orally except when oral evidence could truly make no difference.”