A solicitor recorded by an undercover TV reporter giving advice on what he knew was a sham marriage has been struck off for the second time by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
Sole practitioner Zulfiqar Ali was struck off for the first time in April last year and ordered to pay £18,900 in costs. His costs bill following the second hearing this summer came to £26,500.
Mr Ali successfully appealed against his first striking off to the High Court.
Without explaining further, the SDT said: “It was ordered by consent in the Administrative Court that the previous decision of the tribunal be quashed and remitted for a reconsideration.”
The TV documentary aired in July 2015 and involved Mr Ali and other solicitors being surreptitiously recorded discussing sham marriages with purported clients who were actually undercover reporters.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) only became aware of it in February 2017, however, and used a court order to obtain TV footage from the production company.
The SRA said the reporter asked Mr Ali how he could extend his stay in the UK and ultimately secure permanent residency or citizenship by means of a sham marriage.
The fresh tribunal found that the solicitor had “provided advice and offered assistance with paperwork relating to entering into a non-genuine marriage in order to circumvent UK immigration rules”.
Mr Ali “was aware that what was being discussed in both meetings was a non-genuine marriage”.
The tribunal rejected as “implausible” Mr Ali’s claim that that he was advising on “hypothetical scenarios” and said it did not consider that he “could be described as being ‘entrapped’ into giving the advice” to the TV reporter.
“Whilst he did not control the circumstances, the undercover reporter specifically seeking to elicit responses on sham marriages, he did control his responses.”
The SDT heard that Mr Ali, admitted in 2010, was authorised as a sole practitioner in June 2015, practising as ZA Solicitors.
The SRA actually launched its investigation after another law firm, acting for a developer, complained of misconduct relating to conveyancing transactions and the purchase of off-plan flats.
Mr Ali was found to have transferred over £828,000 of client money in the form of purchasers’ deposits to a development company which he knew did not own the property involved in the clients’ conveyancing transactions. (It was to be turned into 64 flats.)
There were a number of red flags, from being instructed in a field of work the firm did not advertise as practising – this was “at least surprising”, the SDT said – confusion over whether contracts had been exchanged on the property and the client applying pressure to breach the requirements of the accounts rules by paying deposits into the firm’s office account as it did not have a client account at the time.
In doing so, the SDT said Mr Ali had facilitated property transactions which were “dubious and/or bore the hallmarks of fraud”.
Mr Ali was found to have acted with a lack of integrity with regard to the property transactions, and with a lack of integrity and dishonestly in relation to his sham marriage advice. He denied all the allegations against him, apart from breaking the accounts rules.
In mitigation, counsel for Mr Ali repeated the argument that the solicitor was advising on “hypothetical situations” and said his misconduct was the result of deception.
“In any event, no instructions on any non-genuine marriage had been taken and no documents in support of any such marriage had been prepared. The respondent had co-operated with an investigation by the Home Office and no action had been taken against him.”
However, the SDT said Mr Ali showed “no sign of appreciating the extent to which the conversation repeatedly strayed into areas which were unacceptable for any solicitor”.
In relation to the property transactions, the tribunal noted that all but one purchaser had recovered their deposit, but the large sums of money involved “risked a very significant impact” on the lives of clients.