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SDT strikes out case against solicitors after SRA failures make fair trial “impossible”

SRA: facing costs order [1]

SRA: facing costs order

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has taken the highly unusual step of striking out for abuse of process the prosecution of five solicitors, after finding that the actions of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) had made it impossible for them to have a fair trial.

Making its decision [2] after the SRA had presented its case, the SDT said the regulator had failed to put forward a “coherent or manageable case to answer”.

It agreed with the characterisation of the allegations “as having been placed in a kind of proximity with the facts but not always close to the facts and the burden had been shifted to the tribunal to sort out the charges”.

Proceedings were brought against Kulwant Singh Manak, Robin Heer and Balbir Singh Dahil – all partners of Coventry firm Heer Manak – and two solicitors at the firm, Pritpal Chahal and Rajbinder Kaur Dhillon. There were 15 serious allegations in all made against the quintet in various combinations.

The firm closed in December 2013 after failing to secure professional indemnity insurance because of the allegations. Ms Dhillon had left in July 2011.

The SDT said that it had balanced the interests of the public, who should not be exposed to bad practices, against the solicitors’ right to a fair trial, and its decision was “based upon the impossibility of holding a fair trial”.

The ruling – which dates from last November but was published yesterday after an embargo was lifted – said: “[The SDT] determined based on the presentation of the [SRA’s] case that a point had been reached where to proceed was unfair because the respondents could not determine with any certainty the case against each of them.

“There was no coherent or manageable case to answer. The case had been presented as a global array of interrelated allegations to which the tribunal considered a scattergun approach had been taken, including in respect of the most serious of the allegations breaches of the conduct rules, of undertaking and of dishonesty.”

The SDT went on to emphasise that the abuse issues went beyond the pleadings and the presentation of the case “and extended back into the approach to collecting evidence and apparently missing crucial evidence which was in the hands of the CPS and which cast doubt upon the safety of relying on evidence in the case generally”.

Further, in relation to Mr Chahal, the tribunal said there were allegations against him which it thought should never have been brought.

The decision applied to Ms Dhillon even though she had not engaged with the disciplinary process, was not represented before the SDT and had not applied for the strike-out.

The SDT made a costs order against the SRA, which is also unusual as costs do not automatically follow the event in disciplinary proceedings even if the defendants are cleared.

It recognised that the partners “had clearly suffered considerable financial loss”, including by the closure of the firm resulting from the allegations, and said they should receive 40% of their £300,000 costs. Mr Chahal, meanwhile, “had not been employed in the profession for several years as a result of the allegations” and received 80%.

Gordon Ramsay, SRA director of enforcement, said: “We are concerned by the tribunal’s decision and expect to bring an appeal for reasons of public interest. We note that the costs order against the SRA was limited because of concerns the tribunal had about the respondents’ conduct of the matter.”