The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal has thrown out charges brought by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) against a non-qualified fee-earner, deciding he had no case to answer and that the regulator should pay costs as a reminder to keep cases under review as they progress.
The unusual decision came after the SRA’s main witness, the principal at the firm, could not substantiate her belief that the fee-earner had forged signatures on declarations on documents prepared in support of immigration applications.
The case concerned three documents which were alleged to contain false signatures in relation to two clients.
The witness, Satpal Roth, a criminal practitioner, alleged that the respondent, Mohammed Ali Khan, a fee-earner at Kher Solicitors in Sowerby Bridge, Yorkshire, had confessed to forging signatures of members of the firm at a disciplinary meeting held in November 2013. He denied he had done so.
The SRA was seeking an order that “it would be undesirable for him to be employed by a solicitor in connection with his or her practice as a solicitor”.
The tribunal stressed that the burden of proving the allegations lay with the applicant to the criminal standard, and was satisfied that the SRA’s evidence was such that a tribunal could not properly find the allegations in relation to one client proved.
In relation to the other client, the notes taken of the disciplinary meeting were not a verbatim record and did not record an “unequivocal admission of forgery”.
Ms Roth stated her belief that the respondent was guilty of forgery partly by reason of the date on the supposedly forged document. Indeed, she excluded another employee from suspicion because they had been absent on the day the document was purportedly signed.
But the tribunal concluded that “Ms Roth had not earlier considered the possibility that the date may have been false” and pointed out that “this could have been a likely occurrence if the document did indeed bear a forged signature”.
Equally, Ms Roth stated that the signature on one document was not hers in part because she did not write dates in the way the date was written. However, the tribunal recorded, “it was possible that the document could have been dated by another person after it had been signed. This was another possibility Ms Roth had not considered”.
Dismissing the case, the SDT said it made no finding of fact as to whether that signature had been forged or not, but it was satisfied “that the applicant’s evidence against the respondent, when taken at its highest, could not properly lead to the allegation, that he had forged that signature, being proved”.
Ordering costs of £5,000 against the SRA, it said that while the SRA’s application had been certified as a case to answer by a member of the tribunal before Mr Khan had been given an opportunity to submit his response, once it received the response, the SRA should have “analysed” it and “reappraised” the application.
It concluded: “Being exposed to an adverse costs order in such circumstances would not have a chilling effect on the applicant regulator, but would reinforce its obligation to keep under review the oversight of a case when exercising its regulatory function.”