Law firm owner rebuked for caseworker supervision failure

Immigration: Court referred firm to SRA 

A solicitor who failed to supervise an immigration caseworker in a matter which led the High Court to refer his firm to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has been rebuked.

Silas Ogbonna admitted that his misconduct allowed a judicial review application to be made which was not properly arguable and undermined the operation of the immigration system.

The founder and director of Croydon firm Topstone Solicitors, his failure has been dealt with by a regulatory settlement agreement with the SRA, although it is not the first time the firm has found itself in hot water over immigration applications.

The SRA recounted that the firm was instructed apply for a judicial review of the home secretary’s decision to refuse the client’s application for leave to remain in the UK.

The caseworker who handled it was based at the firm’s Ilford office and supervised by Mr Ogbonna from Croydon.

In September 2019, the High Court denied the application on the papers, saying it did not have a realistic prospect of success. The court made a costs order against the client.

The application was pressed to an oral hearing, at which the court “identified major deficiencies” in it, including the omission of key documents and a failure to apply for permission to use new evidence.

The court said the client had been “badly served” by Topstone; there had “not been any proper scrutiny of the decision under challenge” and the client had presumably not been given “appropriate advice” on their position.

The court adjourned the hearing and ordered the client to serve amended grounds for the application. It also issued a costs order of £350 against Topstone and ordered it to make written submissions about its conduct.

Mr Ogbonna told the court that the firm was instructed only four days before the 90-day limit to review the decision of the home secretary expired, and that the caseworker had pursued the case without involving him, contrary to the firm’s procedures.

Further, the quarterly appraisal with the caseworker, due during the course of the case, could not take place and this prevented the solicitor from identifying the problems with it.

Mr Ogbonna accepted that the application was poorly pleaded and managed, and that the client had instructed the firm to withdraw their application. Topstone agreed to pay all of the client’s costs.

The court decided to refer Topstone to the SRA, whose investigation established that the caseworker did not follow the firm’s supervision procedure and discuss the matter with Mr Ogbonna.

Both he and the caseworker accepted that the court’s criticism was justified, with Mr Ogbonna acknowledging that he had not supervised the matter properly.

The firm has now closed the Ilford office, which the solicitor allowed for more effective supervision and would prevent a recurrence.

The SRA took account of Mr Ogbonna’s mitigation that the failure to supervise “appears to have been an isolated incident” and that the firm has put in place systems and controls to prevent any similar issues arising.

In deciding a written rebuke was sufficient, the SRA said the client did not suffer significant lasting harm but that a public sanction was required “to uphold the public’s confidence and deter similar behaviour in the future”.

In 2018, Topstone was one of three firms referred by a High Court judge to the SRA for conduct displaying “a serious and persistent failure to adhere to proper standards”.

Mr Justice Green said Topstone “proceeded in ignorance of any of the most basic facts about the client or the case” and used an unqualified trainee to submit grounds to the court that were “irredeemably bad”.

Last year, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal banned Mr Ogbonna from holding compliance roles after finding that he ignored his anti-money laundering responsibilities. He was also fined £25,000, which was then reduced by 50% due to his limited means, while Topstone was fined £15,000.

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