A solicitor who was “reckless” as to whether the court might be misled over a £2.9 costs bill has been suspended for 12 months by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
Rejecting an allegation that Nabeel Amer Sheikh was dishonest, the SDT said his behaviour “played to harmful stereotypes of lawyers seeking to maximise payments from the public purse”.
An earlier, differently constituted, tribunal had ruled in 2019 that there was no case to answer against Mr Shiekh, but the ruling was overturned by the High Court in November 2020, with Lord Justice Davis finding that the SDT “fell into serious error” and ordering the case to be remitted to a fresh tribunal.
Mr Sheikh had been acting for Hitendra Patel in an appeal against conviction. The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal and made a recovery of defence costs order in Mr Patel’s favour. Neumans lodged a £2.9m bill of costs, the largest the court had ever received.
Master Egan QC, the then registrar of criminal appeals, investigated and, in May 2015, found evidence of fraud in the costs claim.
In December 2016, the appeal court revoked the costs order and directed repayment of £500,000 which had been paid on account. Neither Mr Patel nor Neumans opposed the order.
The court also ordered that the case be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions and the SRA.
The reconstituted SDT ruled this month that Mr Shiekh had caused a costs bill to be submitted to the Court of Appeal for £2.9m when claims were made for work “which did not reflect the work actually undertaken” by the firm and did not include documents and information which ought to have been provided.
By way of example, the SRA said that in the two years to January 2008, the firm claimed 4,439 units of time with a contemporaneous supporting record, and 32,251 units without.
Counsel for Mr Shiekh again argued that there was no case to answer, but this was rejected.
The SDT said it was “critical to public trust in the profession that the public had confidence that solicitors would not mislead the court or take appreciable risks that the court may be misled”.
It accepted that Mr Sheikh had carried out a “very significant amount of work” and the bill of costs might “reflect a genuine effort to recreate what had been completed”.
However, “the way in which it was completed, supported and presented could not accurately reflect the work completed and there was a risk that the court could be misled”.
The tribunal said it “could not understand” why the solicitor did not keep records at the time the work was done. “Even where payment is not determined by reference to hours completed, it invites serious professional and commercial difficulties to be unable to evidence the work undertaken.”
It did not consider that he set out to persuade his client or the court that he had completed work he had not done; it was not “impossible” to reconcile the information on time worked with what may have happened.
Mr Sheikh’s “recklessness as to the possibility that the court may be misled” was misconduct likely to diminish public trust in the profession and he had acted with a lack of integrity.
“In a claim for costs to be paid from the public purse, the respondent needed to be absolutely transparent about, and cautious in, his methodology.”
The SDT found that Mr Sheikh’s motivation was “to enable him to present the costs claim as favourably as possible notwithstanding the incomplete and in many cases non-existent records”.
The SDT said a “huge amount of work went into the costs claim and the supporting documents, including producing attendance notes from scratch”.
The lack of clarity “in the context of a claim which inflated the costs due tenfold” – by using a deed of variation to remove an agreed fees cap and apply higher rates with retrospective effect – “played to harmful stereotypes of lawyers seeking to maximise payments from the public purse”.
However, the tribunal said the misconduct related to a “single matter” a decade ago, and the solicitor had shown “genuine insight” and apologised. It said the risk of any repetition was “extremely low”.
Mr Sheikh was suspended for 12 months from the beginning of November 2021 and ordered to pay costs of £41,400.