A solicitor who was recorded by an undercover reporter giving advice on what he knew was a sham marriage has been struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
The tribunal also found that Zulfiqar Ali transferred over £800,000 of client money to a property company which he knew did not own the property involved in conveyancing transactions.
In doing so, the SDT said Mr Ali had facilitated property transactions which were “dubious and/or bore the hallmarks of fraud”.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) said it had used a court order to obtain the full TV footage from a production company of a conversation in which Mr Ali was “surreptitiously recorded” discussing a sham marriage with ‘client A’, who was, unbeknownst to him, an undercover reporter.
The SRA said client A 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.
Mr Ali, who is appealing the SDT decision to the High Court, denied breaking the rules or acting dishonestly.
He said that after the programme was broadcast in 2015, he was interviewed by the Home Office, which decided to take no action.
The SDT said: “Not only was it clear at the outset, but it was clear throughout the interview that client A intended to enter into a sham marriage.
“The tribunal found that the respondent, in the knowledge that it was client A’s intention to enter into a sham marriage so as to remain in the UK once his visa had expired, provided advice throughout the interview to client A.”
The tribunal said that among other things, client A had spoken of paying someone to marry him, asked Mr Ali how he could find someone to marry and about the risk if he was caught.
The SDT found that no solicitor acting with integrity would advise a client on options for entering a sham marriage and offer to do the paperwork, and Mr Ali had acted dishonestly.
“It would cause great concern to know that solicitors were using their expertise to circumvent immigration rules by advising on and offering to assist in the making of false applications.”
The solicitor was born in 1969, admitted in 2010 and authorised as a sole practitioner in 2015, practising as ZA Solicitors. The SRA investigated the firm in 2017, “following concerns regarding the firm’s involvement in conveyancing transactions”.
The tribunal described as “extraordinary” that Mr Ali did not consider it suspicious that his firm, which did not advertise conveyancing work on its website, should be instructed to carry out work relating to a “multi-million pound investment”.
The SDT said Mr Ali’s explanation, that his lack of conveyancing experience was “not material” and solicitors “have books to consult”, was “wholly implausible”.
Mr Ali admitted that he was aware that the solicitors which had apparently acted for the development company in the purchase of the property “were in fact immigration advisers”.
The tribunal said Mr Ali’s claim that this “raised no suspicion” in his mind was “incredible”.
The SDT said was “extremely concerned” that the sole practitioner still had no suspicions when the property company instructed him to receive money for clients’ deposits, knowing he had no client account because he was an immigration lawyer.
Mr Ali was found to have carried out no “basic money laundering checks” and failed to comply with his firm’s own procedures.
He had “completely ignored the numerous and obvious red flags which indicated that the transactions were dubious and bore the hallmarks of fraud.”
One client, Mrs Y, who handed over £59,290 to Mr Ali as a deposit for a new flat, said she was “sure she had been scammed” by August 2017, when she was told by her children that no construction work was taking place at the property.
The SDT said Mrs Y had lost “a substantial amount of her husband’s monies which had not been returned to her.”
However, the tribunal did not hold the sole practitioner to have been reckless because “he did not perceive that there was any risk that the monies would be lost or not returned to the purchasers”.
Mr Ali was struck off and ordered to pay £18,900 in costs.